My first ever visit to our local show and country festival, one of the biggest and most popular in our corner of the country. Miraculously the wet cold weather gave way to sunshine and high banks of rolling cloud. Somehow, always being held for the last 175 years at the end of August, the Summer’s passing is well marked. A lovely relaxed afternoon spent with visiting family and bumping into friends and neighbours as we mingled with the crowds, experiencing the range of exhibitions and events. Everything from falconry displays, vintage vehicles and a fell race to Cumberland & Westmorland style wrestling and Northumbrian piping. I loved those endearing and enduring sections covering baking and craft, handwriting and novelties (piggy bank, key ring, door stop or teapot). Horses, ponies, working dogs and sheep much in evidence too as you’d expect at such a traditional gathering. We followed the youngsters taking the jumps on their ponies, all very skilled and well turned out. The sheep on show in the pens – Texels, Blue Faced Leicesters, Mules, Scottish Face (pictured) and Shetland – all looked fine specimens. (I’d not realised before the wee Shetland breed had so many attractive shades of browns and greys in its fleece colouration) Joined my friends in the community choir to entertain folk in the traditional music tent at the end of the afternoon, and was relieved to get through our repertoire with aplomb! Finished the day among the crowd watching the inter hunt relay race (horses and quads) in the main ring, before heading off to home for supper.
Realising that we would be staying in the area of Tuscany that was the birthplace and main area of work of the Renaissance master Piero della Franchesca (1415?-1492) opened exciting possibilities to experience that legacy. In relation to the life and role of the countryside the Madonna del Parto (Pregnant Madonna) comes closest to reflecting those rural roots. This precious work was commissioned by an unknown donor for the little parish church of the hilltop village of Monterchi at some point in the late 1450’s. A fresco, that analysis has shown was painted section by section in seven days, shows a life size virgin Mary revealed standing in a pavilion by a pair of mirror image angels. I found it a serene, enigmatic and luminous work of rare power & fine detail that captivates and intrigues. The quiet artistic genius who composed and crafted this masterpiece was a skilled mathematician too. Following an earthquake in the C18th and later the demolition of the cemetery chapel it had been moved to, the work was given its own museum in 1992. Painstakingly restored it has been further interpreted with lavishly produced introductory film and educational workshop space. For centuries local expectant women would come to the church (& later chapel) to pray for a safe delivery and leave little gifts for the pregnant virgin. We were struck to see a little box next the glass fronted work today, full of cards & offerings, so clearly the tradition continues. Piero’s C15th Madonna had replaced a much earlier fresco dedicated to a ‘Madonna of the Milk’. A touchstone matter of fertility & renewal in this quiet rural heartland which also indicates an earlier pre-christian history, long since gone and yet curiously ever present.
A visit I made on my own on another day was to the delightful town museum at the heart of the hilltop town of Anghiari , and that too proved another revelation. No big names here so few visitors even on this public holiday, the feast of the assumption. I was grateful for the quiet unhurried air that made for contemplative viewing as I ascended the stairs of the tall medieval palazzo. One by one beautiful restored examples of polychromatic wooden sculpture revealed themselves – an art form that flourished here in the Tiber valley during the 13th and 14th century. As previously noted, the valley’s hills roundabout are clothed, then as now, with dense woodlands. The most famous practitioner was Jacopo della Quercia and a fine complete wooden Madonna & child has a room all to itself. My favourites though were the unknown Tuscan masters whose more fragmented time worn pieces still radiated a simple unaffected intensity grounded in innocence and humility. Interesting to reflect that the young Piero, growing up in neighbouring Sansepolcro, would have been surrounded by such imagery as a child and how this form of religious iconography would have fed into his creative awareness and later practice.
It’s a lovely restful thing to sit out under the stars talking, eating and drinking as night falls and the sound generated by nearby unseen crickets increases. Known as stridulation and caused by the insects rubbing their legs together as part of their mating and status strategies, it is almost birdlike but louder, more intense and unrelenting. Consistency reduces the impact and the insect chorus becomes tolerated like traffic or workplace noise; the default background setting. A single cricket lands on the table. Graced by long antennae and sudden agility. (Curiosity gets the better of it as we find the poor creature drowned in the wasp trap next morning). Other regular night time visitors are large round form beetles, their blackness tinged a shiny deep blue under night light. After rain a large toad emerges from under the huge rosemary bushes that fringe and fragrance the patio to contemplate proceedings. Every night, arriving and departing without fail within a two hour span, are a score of hornets. Thankfully they are not interested in us but reserve all their energy hovering and clambering around the long life bulb in its glass shade that acts as household outside illumination, high on a corner near the door. Their constant buzz harmonises with the cricket chorus, as they rise and fall to embrace the bright white light. We notice the wide eaves are under worked with brick to discourage any nesting. To complete and enhance the nocturnal scene a troupe of skinny cats, parents and kittens, like strolling players ply their acrobatic foraging skills on every level around us. Moths and beetles particularly harassed by their play and slay games. But the children love them and lend names to each and every black or tabby personality.
A wonderful week away with the extended family, based at an old converted farmhouse high on a wooded hillside above Anghiari on the Tuscany/Umbria border. A ten minute testing drive up a switchback unmade track finally reveals a tremendous view across to the Valtiberna, valley of the river Tiber. Being August it is unsurprisingly hot, then thunderstorms sweep in, with heavy rain clearing the air before blue skies come again. We eat out every evening under a sheltering wooden pergola thickly laced with wisteria. Rarely would you see the seed pods at home but here the velvet pods grow long and dense just like runner beans. A striking feature is the old almond tree that reaches up to the roof line, retained for aesthetic and sentimental reasons by the owner. By the late 1960’s these remote agricultural holdings were being abandoned. A tough unrelenting life for the occupants in the modern era with only water from the well, no utilities and the young rejecting such a future. Olivia, an ex-pat with dual UK/Italian citizenship, bought this stone built farm complex some twenty years ago, by which time it was a wreck with dense scrub and weeds colonising terraces where olives, wheat, apples and other fruit once grew. Having totally renovated and installed all mod cons as well as putting in a swimming pool on the nearest terrace she moved to a more convenient location at the bottom of the hill and let out the villa. How dense the woods are here in the foothills below Monte Castiglione. There is a fascinating mixture of northern European trees (Oak, ash, elder, chestnut etc) cheek by jowl with southern European natives (acacia, mimosa, olives, almonds etc). In autumn, we were told, the red and yellow canopy shelters a treasure house of funghi which provide a mainstay of regional gastronomic dishes. Clearly too the steep inclines and dense wooded cover provide shelter for boar, deer and other animal and bird life while the valley bottoms are intensely farmed and closely irrigated for a variety of arable crops, from corn to sunflowers. The Tiber valley remains a centre for tobacco growing and we see tall small tractors harvesting the big leaves in the brown clay fields. Have a soft spot for the three wheeled motor bike trucks I first saw in great numbers around the countryside when last in Italy hitch hiking as a student back in 1970. They are a rarer sight today so finding a vintage scale model in a gift shop cheered me greatly and made for a prized souvenir. Here’s an original we saw at a restaurant in the hills above Arezzo, still in use carrying wood for the ovens, stoves and just about everything else.
The recent wet & dry spell, combined with our friends and neighbours’ muckspreading of boggy pasture, has resulted in a glut of field mushrooms. Mrs Southridge & Kim went a-gathering one morning and divied up what they managed to forage. I made brunch with some of our bounty then a mushroom soup with the rest. Beautiful dark earthy tang lightened with cream after slow cooking. Saved some for the freezer to allow us another taste of summer at years end. Made first juice of the season, encouraged by the good early crop but the apples are still dry, lacking juice, so I added some sugar to compensate. In another month, when the pips are dark & hard, ready for the drop, that won’t be an issue.
On the temperature scale this part of the UK has consistently been on the cooler fresher edge of summer. Warm enough but rarely too much to bear. Recent rainfall has turned the browns back to greens across our upland landscape. Still not enough for many farmers who have had to resort to feeding stock with this year’s recently cut silage and hay. But for us gardeners it seems to have generally brought more cheers than tears. Grey water from baths and showers have been essential, as mentioned before, in getting through the mini-drought. Our happy acre has benefited from early spring’s removal of straggly older bushes and replacement with a range of annuals and perennials bought at local nurseries and NGS sales. The pond planting has thrived; cordoned apples likewise while our new rockery has been worth the misadventure of the head gardener’s fractured ankles! Climbing rose and clematis are now filling the void left by the extraction of the conifer that once dominated that space. One is a Clematis Montana. Our resident pied wagtails nested in its tangled leafy mass, but their little late brood has sadly failed. The swallows by contrast are now multiplied from two to four, regularly sweeping the skies hereabouts, and sometimes meeting up over the field with other families. (Planning their autumn flight back to Africa we wonder?). Both adult hedgehog and fox have triggered the yard security lights on separate nights. Delighted to have beautiful peacock and small tortoise butterflies feasting on the flowers, along with many hoverflies and bees. Small white butterflies have most recently dominated by way of numbers, so pleased that the newly acquired ‘poppadomes’ are in place to keep them off the brassicas in their raised beds. We’ve had another good blackcurrant crop for jams and juice while for the first time this year we make cassis and store it in a big glass jar. The damsons are netted, in a basic wrap around way, although blackbird activity is down on last year when they stripped the entire ripened crop from both bushes. Catch sight of the inconspicuous dunnocks going about their earth bound business, hopping in and out of the foliage, and wonder where they have so secretly nested. The retired builder who does odd jobs for us, when repairing the roof recently, discovered an old nest (probably a sparrow’s) where slipped slates had allowed egress under the gable end.