Walk

My last production ‘A Winter Warmer’ had a successful trial run in the studio at Dumfries Theatre Royal last weekend. Now back home and free of work that has too often confined me indoors It was now time I did my own winter warmer. Yesterday it took the form of a short bike ride up to the forest and today it was a circular by back roads and footpath, which took just over an hour. Bright clear blue skies and very cold so perfect conditions. Set out, past a flock of sheep with a Texel tup in marker harness about his duties. Our neighbours at Southridge are planning to lamb later next Spring, at the back end and not the fore of April. All due to the poor early Spring grass growth of 2018, made worse by the ‘Beast from the East’ weather event preceeding it. The roadside pond by East farm well frozen over and the sedges all browned and bent. Turn off down the steep back lane (also a national cycle route) and have to watch my step as the sun doesn’t touch this north facing edge of the whin sill ridge and it would be easy to slip on the permanently frosted tarmaced surface. Pick up the long distance trail at crosslanes and follow the cul-de-sac which leads to Oldstead. A handful of Silkies, those most exotic of chickens, discovered here pecking for food in the garden. I’m impressed with our neighbours planting of woodland on the ridge to the east as well as more apple trees in their garden with its beech hedge. Through the gate and over boggy rough grazing to a low bank boundary, all that remains of hedge or wall that once ran here and now marked only by two lines of impressive mature ash trees. We here the adult tawny owls call from their haunts here in winter and from our house they dominate middle distance views. One of the trees, rotten at its core, has been cut down and I marvel at the contrasting textures of sectioned bark, moss, good wood and rotten timber at its core. Natural decay I wonder, or Ash Dieback? I hope the former, but fear the latter. Leave the trail at our boundary, climb the gate and take in the view from our crags before coming home via the garden. The sight of field mushrooms frosted with crystals catches my attention. Come milder weather I may yet catch a morning crop before harsh weather returns to put a stop to growth.

Moles

On a recent visit to London made first ever visit in the company of daughter Stephanie to view the Grant Collection of Zoology housed in University Street off Gower Street, part of University College London (UCL). Free entry to a ground floor study centre and couple of rooms crammed with all manner of preserved creatures in an array of glass containers or artfully displayed with wire…from snake skeletons to neanderthal skulls, embryos to eggs, scale models and skeletons. Wonderfully old fashioned and very informative. Interestingly, no shortage of willing supporters to adopt an exhibit and thus further the institute’s work. One of my favourite displays was this macabre mass of pickled moles in an old sweet jar. Am sure a fine writer must has been inspired to pen a horror story or poem after viewing…

Sleepers

At back end and the best time to get started on those structural jobs around the garden. A large bed abutting porch and downstairs bedroom wall needs to be de-constucted and contents moved elsewhere. Plants have already been replanted elsewhere or abandoned. Having James up from Derbyshire for the weekend to help gives Kim & I the extra muscle and impetus we need to get the job done. Soil goes to fill the boxes in the kitchen garden and the rougher stuff under the trees. The old railway sleepers that make up the two low borders of the bed require nifty work with the sack truck. Once lifted we move them to edge the gravel path between front border and studio. After a bit of prep in clearing a space the old worn timbers fit wonderfully and look as if they’ve been in place for years. Two large regular stones complete the line, tucked in under a cotoneaster in the corner. The last sleeper we move reveals a surprise…a half dozen small frogs of various sizes pop out of gaps between wood and compacted soil and start leaping about. We cup them carefully in our hands and decide to release them by the pond which is a good 70 yards away, at the other side of the garden. Our surprise compounded by discovering other inhabitants, cheek by jowl, in the form of two adult palmate newts in a state of torpor, dust covered crinkled skin. Harder to spot than the still active frogs. We release the little creatures between beached pond end and the logs deliberately stacked there to shelter amphibians in winter. Returning a short while later there was no sign of the newts so I assume they’d made their slow way to safety and a further – undisturbed – hibernation. Fascinated that both species should, literally, find common ground to congregate and ponder why that particular place and that distance from the pond. In any case we were sorry to have unwittingly destroyed one refuge but glad to have provide another.

Juice

Having a dozen trees planted around the garden makes for our modest orchard with a day to day juicing requirement for home consumption. It suits. Going back to Devon on this trip and visiting a small producer like McG makes for a very interesting afternoon. We enjoyed a lovely lunch Jake & Miriam in their village centre home in Dolton. Their four grown up children help them out, when at home. The big orchard lies below the garden. Former pastureland, sloping down to a small stream, is where the enterprising couple planted some 200+ apple varieties, all suitable for juicing. They also put in a few crab apples to aid pollination. In a large wooden shed on site they crush, juice, pasteurise & bottle their lovely apple product. The old barn opposite the house is used for storage (carefully insulated against freezing in Winter) before orders are labelled top sealed and dispatched. (Labels designed by Miriam). The couple have grown a good customer base, both wholesale & retail, across the county. One growing product line is apple vinegar while a brisk trade in bottling juice for other growers balances output flows and brings in extra income. It’s all go each autumn of course and having a mini-tractor and cart for the heavy work makes all the difference in harvesting effectively. 2018 has been a good year so they – like many others – have surplus product, like these Lord Derby apples, left lying in the orchard this November. Michael, Kim & I left even more appreciative of people like Jake & Miriam whose dedication, hard work and skill set have brought new life to old ways, here in the heart of Devon.

Market

Local resident and ‘Gardeners World’ presenter Carol Klein is on record as saying that it’s easier to get a place at Chelsea flower Show than a stall in South Molton pannier market. I love it. Reminds me of a Victorian engine shed, wide open at the lower end. the once great cattle market has receded from and today a much smaller mart is still held for sheep. Originally farmers wives would bring their wares to market – butter, cheese, eggs, vegetables etc – in panniers astride a donkey or other beast of burden. That’s no longer the case of course but the market still thrives on a Thursday and Friday, with a variety of quality goods on sale and a good buzz about the place. On previous visits Kim bought plants but this time we’re on the train so limited to compact things like…books! The main big stall here is run by a very amiable and knowledgeable collector. It takes him an hour and a half to set up of a market day morning. The stalls were full of delights – maps, children’s books, topographical volumes, histories etc – and yer man was doing a brisk trade. He told me endearing anecdotes of Henry Williamson while I bought a mint condition 1948 edition of his most famous work ‘Tarka the Otter’. Williamson (1895-1977) lived much of his long life here in north Devon and the still operating Exeter-Barnstaple branch line is named after the eponymous creature. (The two rivers – Taw & Torridge) Charles Tunicliffe’s brilliant illustrations added greatly to its effect, giving birth to a new genre in nature writing for the modern age.   Was also fortunate to dig out a 1978 W G Hoskin’s ‘Devon’ as published by David & Charles – the definitive County guide. A hat trick completed by another classic from the same year – David St John Thomas’s ‘The Country Railway’. (The David in David & Charles). The previous night Michael had taken us to join a packed house of locals in the old church rooms nestling in a corner of the old churchyard at nearby Swimbridge to hear the local historian give an illustrated lecture on the village’s station in particular and the Taunton to Barnstaple line in general. Great atmosphere and lots of lovely poignant anecdotes of that lost rural line and the characters who worked on it up to closure under the Beeching cuts of the 1960’s. The station and a long stretch of trackbed into Barnstaple now lies under the A361 North Devon link road. Our lecturer had an easy conversational style and really bought the subject to life for visitors like Kim & I. He had brought along objects from his collection including a copy of ‘The Country Railway’, now long out of print, which I photographed, determined to look out for… As it turned out I did not have to wait long. The old friendship with our wonderful host Michael allowed this leisurely weekend to be full of such happy events…And for that I am truly and everlastingly grateful!

p.s. The green bikes hanging from the market walls are a proud reminder of the Round Britain Race when the mass of competitors streamed through the the length of the venerable building, cheered on by crowds of locals!

War & Peace

Recently returned from a long weekend with our friend Michael Gee, staying at his cottage in North Devon. As always Kim & I are entertained, informed and integrated into local life by our extraordinary host. The afternoon of our day – Rememberance Sunday, 11th November – was spent driving over Exmoor into west Somerset, to explore the picture perfect settlement of Dunster on its lush eastern edge, overlooking the Bristol Channel. Not been here since touring an adaptation of ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’ with Barnstaple based Orchard Theatre Company back in the 1980’s. The company derived its name from a line in ‘Sergeant Musgrave’s Dance’ by John Arden. It took Joan Littlewood’s Theatre practice out of the East End of London (Stratford Theatre Royal) into the rural heart of Devon, premiering and later touring lots of new work and adaptations. That morning I’d stood in silence with Kim in Michael’s cottage garden, remembering the fallen of World War One, exactly 100 years after the armistice. Grandfather William Tomlin was a Stratford lad (b.1890), a regular soldier in the Essex Rgt, wounded in action on the retreat from Mons in August 1914. A story he told was about breaking ranks on the march to take apples offered by Belgian civilians. He was charged and accepted field punishment, being tied to a gun wheel to take a beating. He reckoned it saved his life as on returning to his unit he discovered they’d all been wiped out by a German shell. So, there you go – Orchard, Stratford, War, Apples, Fate. But back to the present… Michael was awarded a British Empire Medal (BEM) two years ago for his services to Orchard Conservation in Devon. He’d been a consultant for Dunster’s community orchard project, established from scratch on a gentle slope just above the centre, on land donated by the Crown Estate, the largest landowner hereabouts. He was relieved and delighted to find it well pruned and established some five years on. The parish tithe barn (now a restored community centre), old priory dovecote, magnificent parish church and the equally impressive restored and rebuilt castle with its lovely encompassing gardens, (now in the care of the National Trust) all provided further delights to make our day out a truly wonderful one. Our drive demonstrated very clearly that beech predominates on Exmoor – a result of upland enclosure and improvement on a mass scale by agricultural developers in the early 19th century. As trees, hedge plants or windbreaks, beeches autumn foliage was shining dull gold everywhere in the fine clear weather. The Victorian landowners – led by the Knight family, fabulously wealthy ironmasters from Worcestershire – used every means at their disposal to settle the waste (as they saw it) and turn the former royal hunting forest into profitable farming acreage. One key aspect was drainage and here they built on methods already in place since Tudor times. Steep valley upland holdings had their fertility improved through ‘catchmeadows’ – open drainage systems which helped thaw the land and quicken grass growth and increase the fertility of poor soils and rough grazing. The hardy farmers tapped into head streams, diverting flows through fast moving open channels (leats), often taking them through the farm’s yard, where muck enriched the mix, down into the still frozen intake fields, slowly thawing them in the process of running in rills to a lower lateral drain which in turn would fill and brim over to repeat the process down to another lateral cut and so on to the valley bottom where any remaining water would drain away into the lower wider stream. The result of this comprehensive system brought thawing and fertility to otherwise unpromising land, thus increasing grass yield & hay crop. More animals could be stocked and a viable living generated. Some 240 farms on and around the national park have been identified to have had this system in operation at one time or another. It would take a keen eye, knowing what to look for, to identify the remains of such practices today. Michael knew someone whose job it was as a child to clear the plugs in the yard wall so the ‘catch meadows’ could operate in the early spring…A cold and thankless task for the otherwise ignorant youngster staying with relatives still farming in the old way. I knew of the systematic ‘bedworks’ system involved with seasonal ‘drowning’ of meadows in chalkland valleys in the southern counties of England but this sort of upland practice was a revelation. Put to wondering that it could not surely be unique to Exmoor. Did Dartmoor farmers of old must follow the same practices. It seems likely….More homework clearly required!

Fish

Kim thought she heard an unexplained bump in the garden one evening, but whatever the reason, it was a surprise to find the rear half a full grown salmon in the studio bed last week. I wonder if an owl had dropped its prey originally. The nearest river – one of England’s best game waters – is some three miles hence so most likely to be the source. At this time of year exhausted adult fish, having spawned at the headwaters, drift back on the current to die so a predator, animal or bird, could have found easy prey here. We will never know for sure. The tail end carcass remained for a few more days, to my surprise, as I thought our regular predators like fox or crow would see to it. Eventually I disposed of the rotting remains, adding it to the growing heap of a bonfire in the field. Another corpse materialised a little later in the elegant form of a field mouse, drowned in a bucket of water, the long rear legs still elegant in death. Meanwhile, two very live frog companions – one full size, one small – can be discovered in their usual hiding place under a ledge of stone at the pond edge. Their rival co-habitees, the palmate newt population, seem to have mostly evacuated the soon to be frozen water in order to spend the winter safely under the stacks of logs or among dense leaved plants we’ve planted between water and fence.

Wren

Serendipity…Upstairs one morning last week just about to get into the shower when the voice on the radio asks ‘Which is the UK’s most prolific native breed of bird?’ And I catch sight out of the window, flitting over the wooden sheep feeders edging the lawn, the answer – the wren. There it is, rapidly working invisible cracks for insects. With 8 million breeding pairs this supercharged loud voiced tiny bird appeals to us all. Oddly most people don’t really notice them, so quick and secretive their ways. (Hence the Latin name Troglodytes – Cave Dweller). Their lives may be short and populations catastrophically hit by hard winters but their powers of recovery are such that within a few breeding seasons their premier title is regained. Unlike most other native birds the cock is the nest builder and he’ll construct a number, leaving the inspecting female to decide which home suits best. We’ve also witnessed them convert a former swallow’s nest on our porch where they sometimes shelter for life preserving mutual warmth during the depths of winter. Our other garden seasonal residents – blue tits, great tits, chaffinches, blackbirds and robins – are also beginning to return, like the wrens, this back end. I suspect all these birds spend the summer in food rich territories down in the sheltered wooded valleys of the fast flowing burns that define the southern and northern flanks either side of our property. These species return to our sanctuary acre where supplementary food is always available by way of seeds and nuts. Whatever the reason, we’re always glad to welcome them back.

Harvest

We’ve been troubled recently by wasps nesting in the cavity spaces above the downstairs bathroom. Our builder in repairing and replacing ridge tiles and fascia boards revealed an extra dimension to the problem. I had earlier cemented the obvious entrance under the eaves after fumigating the nest but G in taking down the fascia boards revealed more holes where the insects could also get through.These he filled, but his wise advice we followed. Wasps love fruit and our south facing front garden holds the most prodigious of our apple trees and espaliers. In burrowing into and hollowing out the fruit the wasps get drunk on the juice which in turn makes them more aggressive and more likely to sting. Hence the sooner the mature crop can be gathered the better! We now have lots in store to juice day to day whilst out in the porch stand old fashioned sweet jars containing this season’s batch of home made damson gin and, due to the success of bushes planted last year, gooseberry vodka is on the go too!

Metal & Muck

It’s always wonderful to get family input with the garden and tree surgeon J got his his chainsaw to work recently, thinning the trees in the copses. To save a boundary stone wall shared with our good farming neighbour at Southridge, we took out a major willow trunk that was leaning precipitously over the long distance path that runs alongside, through his pasture. The longer bough segments we saved and I’ve now used them to line the gravel path through the west copse, replacing the original logs I laid last year. Glad to discover thick juicy earthworms in the accumulated humus between rotting wood and weed suppressant liner. I looked up to see the pair of resident dunnocks (hedge sparrows) looking down from branches, hoping for an easy meal. We often catch them foraging: ground hugging, fleet moving, shadow coloured presences. An uneasy feeling that in taking out the big willow in front by the east gate may have unfortunate consequences in leaving that side of the property newly exposed to passing traffic and curious eyes. A dustbin sized corrugated zinc planter by the front door vanished one night. Thieves (It needs two to lift) had taken it as well as the box bush it contained. These planters have value in reclamation yards and garden centres, and of course on line, where no questions are asked. As it happened this loss coincided with a spate of thefts in town where three Victorian post boxes were taken out of the walls that had contained them for at least the last 117 years or so. Apparently since the post office started replacing and selling off old post boxes in recent years a market has grown up for such antiques and a box, depending on condition, can fetch anywhere between £100 – £400 pounds. It’s concerning that if such brazen actions can take place in plain sight in urban environments what hope is there for isolated old boxes scattered through our rural areas? On a happier note, and perhaps echoing remedial felling action, Southridge phoned last week to ask if we wanted any muck from the cowshed he was clearing out that day with the tractor. Yes please, said I. Where do you want it? Drop a load over the fence from your field into ours. Done that day; two full loads. No pressure on moving a heap while it rests there out the way. We’ll load the barrows and spread on the vegetable boxes and the borders in due course. The lawns have been cut for what I hope is the last time this year while out front the grass seed I planted late on in the cleared roadside border has taken well and will hopefully last out the coming winter and continue to thrive (if I keep weed free) come the Spring.