Cuckoos & Crocodiles

Our good neighbours at Bastle farm have a nice sense of humour. Walkers on the long distance path where it descends into the ravine to cross the burn below their stead should take note! Keen long distance walkers themselves the sign was a souvenir from a visit to the Australian outback. These same friends told us this week they’d once again heard the call of the cuckoo in the ravine’s wild woodland. This well known and once common bird is now on the RSPB’s ‘Red List’ of endangered species. with current estimated 15,000 breeding pairs in the UK any evidence of its seasonal presence in our area is welcome.

Wood

Most of the coniferous wood harvested in the great forest on our doorstep is bound for the great woodchip processing plant outside our local market town to the south. Over the last year felling & log lorry activity has notably increased with more and more timber being hauled east to the new town near the coast. There it is fed into the newly opened biomass combined heat and power plant (CHP), a £138 million commercial venture enjoying government subsidy which will supposedly help us reduce global warming. The plant aims to consume 244,000 tonnes of virgin woody biomass sourced from the half million acres of forest within a 60 mile radius. Apart from supplying the national grid the station powers a cluster of local pharmaceutical factories. The knock on effect for us is though is unwelcome. Our local wood supplier is struggling to secure stands of trees for felling because the price has risen to match the new money available and in turn we rural householders will have to pay much more for logs and wait even longer for deliveries.

Lambs & Lizards

Neighbours further along the road hit the headlines in our local paper last week when one of their ewes produced five healthy live lambs. We smile of an evening to see the lamb gangs in the next meadow form and reform. Each year’s newborns instinctively love the dip by the wall which generates endless fun and games for them. Verdict from our farming friends on this year’s lambing is pretty negative by and large. The bitter easterlies & snow that shook the land in March followed by rain & cold took its toll and even now the good weather and fresh grass is slow in coming. Took advantage of the very welcome fine spell we had last weekend to get a lot of jobs done in the garden. The sward got its first cut of the year, 3 dumpy bags of top soil was spread in those large borders starved of fresh earth over the years; a friend’s gift of unwanted daffodils replanted in our biggest spinney and a new apple fan ‘Discovery’ planted against our kitchen’s south facing wall. It makes a trio with last year’s ‘Katy’ and the ‘James Grieve’ from three years back. All three varieties are good for northern climates and make for good juicing. I spied a common lizard on the Saturday (the hottest day of the year so far) basking in the sun. They live very privately in the drystone wall that separates our narrow front garden from the road and I last caught glimpses of them two Summers back. Given these shy creatures hibernate until March I felt heartened and uplifted to see such a harbinger of the warmth to come.

Arches

“I would hope that collectively these arches are a celebration and monument to the Scottish people and the travels they made…A connection between those who have left and those who stayed here.” (Andy Goldsworthy) 

A weekend visit to the Moniaive in Dumfries & Galloway to visit, for the first time, our old friends who have recently moved to the village. Their lovely new abode on the narrow main street broadens considerably at the back to take in a divorced garden, field and a 100 yard length of river bank. Alders, oak & hazel in abundance with ewes and their lambs enjoying the fresh grass all around. Cones at the base of firs exhibit all the marks of being nibbled by red squirrels. (The improvised local road sign reminds us what part we can play in its conservation). The four of us drove northwest to follow that river – the Dalwhat Water – upstream, along an increasingly precarious single track road into the deserted majestic retreat of Glencairn and the abandoned stead at Cairnhead. The pure waters of this swift flowing stream provide an important breeding ground for Atlantic Salmon that run up each autumn from the Solway. This valley was depopulated by the early 20th Century and commercial forestry was established between the wars over a good two thirds of the land, amounting to 1347 hectares. Luckily the glacial valley bottom remained as traditional pasture which allowed these precious headwaters to stay fish and wildlife friendly. Today the Forestry Commission lead with enlightened environmental policies, partnering with locals to create the Cairnhead Community Forest which has led to an increase in native broad leaf planting and encouraged sustainable tourism. One of those actively involved locals is the UK’s leading landscape artist with an international reputation – Andy Goldsworthy. Here at Cairnhead, inside and out of the restored byre, we examined in wonder & admiration the first of his seven great sandstone arches. The rest grace the exposed skyline round the bowl of Glencairn, one in sight of each. Each arch consists of 31 unmortared blocks, weighing up to 27 tons. Next time, it was resolved, we’ll do the high walk that connects them all. For now though, in parting, we look up to a circling buzzard and hear the low hum of plant clearing timber from the dark green flanks of the steep sided glen way over in the still yonder.

 

Kesteven

Travelling the roads from Corby Glen on our forays over three days last week we got a roadside impression of the Kesteven countryside in the south-western part of Lincolnshire. A rolling land of big fields, many ploughed & drilled, with double set metal gates & thin high hedges, more boundary than barrier. This is agriculture on an industrial scale where large scale plant dominates; the country’s breadbasket. At a distance we saw isolated farmhouses like fortresses buttressed by vast storage facilities. The effect of all this is softened by a big sky, stands of mature trees and soil that’s a pleasantly light warm loam, often with stone brash. The bedrock Ancaster stone is an oolitic limestone, and is still quarried commercially on a large scale; easy to work but friable and doesn’t necessarily weather well. Older houses of stone mingle with vernacular red brick & tile. Particularly attractive & cohesive in the inviting central townscapes of Sleaford & Lincoln, especially when set against waterways which were once busy with freight and commercial traffic. Woodland and pasture came back into the picture once we quit the intensely farmed ridgeland to motor down gentle slopes into the shallow valley of the River Witham and its tributaries. Here the parkland settings of estates like Grimethorpe and Belton make for pastoral symphonies reflecting the long golden age of landscaping; of their designers & the money from farming that paid for it all. [Library Pictures]

 

Belton

A wonderful few days spent with extended family near Grantham in Lincolnshire. Introduced to the adventure playground – one of the best I’ve seen – in the original C18th romantic rustic ‘Wilderness’ laid out by the Brownlow family in the lea of their family seat at Belton. (Now National Trust). Grandchildren & oldies set forth on the Easter Nature Trail, once we’d all had refreshments and a 7 minute long fun ride on the fabulous miniature railway that threads through the extensive playground constructs among wood & water. Setting off on our family nature walk we soon left the crowds behind, slipping seamlessly into an artfully molded parkland bordered by a sinuously winding green glazed River Witham. A small tributary flowing in from the north had been damned two centuries since to form picturesque ponds, crossed by a long drive flanked by triple rows of limes and chestnuts: – suitably impressive approach to the great house. The National Trust, through building reefs in the ponds in 2009, have enhanced the habitat of native white clawed crayfish, a threatened native species. Water voles and otters, we were told, also frequent the waters. We heard green woodpeckers, their distinctive laughing call earning it the nickname of ‘Yaffle’. In the near distance herds of fallow deer grazed below great specimen trees in their 750 acre high fenced part of the great park. The Limes, those most favoured of parkland trees, with their dense brush, small leaves and impressive height were the favourite carving wood of craftsmen like Grinling Gibbons who so admired the wood’s fine properties. Everywhere the landscape felt spent, loaded under a grey sky, still waiting to reveal their fresh Spring finery. The children found and identified oak, yew, lime, beech, yew, sycamore & chestnut, happily completing the challenge that the NT rangers had set them and we adjourned for lunch before the threatened downpour finally broke.

Heavenfield

There have been three churches on this religious site with the most resonant of names. Originally built to mark the site of the great battle in 634 where Saint Oswald’s Northumbrian forces defeated the Mercian army to secure the future of Christianity in the region. Today the little church & its sheltering trees sit snugly in an ancient encirclement of stone walled yard in the middle of a sloping field on the high ridge it shares with the remnants of Hadrian’s Wall. No track descends to the military road below where we park our cars, and flickers of snow on a sharp wind do not deter the assembling worshippers. Up until the end of the C19th Heavenfield was the parish church for the village of Wall two miles distant. A donkey cart would ferry those who could not manage the walk. Eventually, in the 1890’s parishioners finally built a new place of worship in the village itself. There’s no electricity, gas or water supply at Heavenfield. The old church is now lovingly preserved by a society of friends and is used on feast and high days. Easter Sunday, one of five annual services held here, is marked as they all are with a full congregation, well wrapped against the elements.Today at the end of service the children scattered excitedly to hunt for chocolate eggs among the gravestones as the adults took in the views or re-assembled to chat over flasks of tea & coffee. We’ve come to this remarkable place before, at Christmas Eve which was quite magical and today was no less special, in a subtly different way. During the service everyone added a flower to the Calvary cross – symbol of death & resurrection – and we left the cheering & colourful structure in the churchyard before departing over the field.

Kew

A visit last weekend to Kew Gardens with daughter and grandchildren, aged 3 & 1. How lucky to have this as their local park. Above, at a couple of thousand feet passenger planes are descending, queuing to land at Heathrow every couple of minutes. Below Plane trees line the avenues to village and park gates. Most are pollarded and at this leafless season appear as stark & alien sculptures, with severed branches like fists waving. In the park itself, free of traffic and wonderfully expansive, we relax and saunter the famous avenues and walks. Changing a nappy by bushes daughter & children are surprised and captivated by a Robin, tame as could be, at their sides. I’m taken by the variety of sweet chestnuts throughout the former palace grounds. Something of an arboreal poster boy for the gardens these magnificent specimen trees from around the world (rivalled only by oaks) display beautifully. A great variety of great boles & deep fissured trunks; some bleeding, some (as pictured) standing within their own circumference of fallen seed casings.