When I first came here to the corner house back in 2010 I was greeted with the sight of a petite black and white cat carrying a dead vole in its mouth, tip toeing rapidly towards me along a slow curve of dry stone wall. Already some eight years old then Pip had come originally as a kitten from North Farm, arriving half feral and stand alone fearsome. An astonishing runner up of trees and lethal predator of birds and all manner of small furry mammals. A winning combination of slim good looks, set in handsome black and white Geordie strip, this feline was a natural born killer who worked her passage as a skilled pest control specialist. As late as this summer our mature ill cat was catching baby rabbits and decapitating them. We never found the heads but their little bodies would be deposited in corners about the house, to be detected in due course as much by smell as by sight.
On this day last week, Pip died. Diagnosed with cancer a few months back, we watched with concern the tumour on her right side growing ominously. The decline was gradual yet the miaow remained as strong and urgent as ever with an appetite that showed no sign of abating until just a couple of days before departure. We found her in the morning, stretched out & warm where we’d left her the night before, on the rug in front of the wood burner. We buried our old friend in her natural garden habitat, at the foot of the curving bank below an oak henge, wrapped in her carry box blanket with a farewell note from Kim slipped in. Pip’s spirit will be quite at home here. We’re resigned to sensing a passing night shadow; finding her curled up in the strawberry beds in the heat of summer; leaping off the porch bench of a chill morning wanting to be let in; gamefully enduring an infant’s attempt at stroking or padding up to greet visitors with her affectionate easy nature.
A full on fortnight travelling the roads of Northumberland & Dumfries touring Haunted: Ghost Story Readings for Halloween. A bonus of returning home late at night has been two separate encounters with a tawny owl. Kim and I were enthralled to suddenly light up one in the middle of the lane, between home and village and along a sheltered stretch where we have previously spotted hares. Motionless, caught in the stationary car’s headlights it stared at us for a while, walked around a bit before slowly taking uplift into the safety of the hedge line trees. Something tells us this is a young bird, born this Spring, seeking to establish its own territory. Back home we hear them sometimes at this time of year, uttering those famous mating cries and hope they are answered and fulfilled.
Nights reading stories at our nine mainly rural venues proves the easy part of the operation. Being the producer too involves days sat at my desk posting social media, doing administration & generally catching up on everything else that needs doing before leaving the house. The need to get some physical exercise each day or doing tasks that are not work related is even more urgent than usual. Mending a small section of our field boundary wall where stock had dislodged it offered the perfect fix on both accounts. Not that I’m an kind of expert but the very act of reforming this jigsaw in stone was very satisfying. How long it will last is another matter. I suddenly remembered, with wry amusement, that I had been here before a decade or so ago. Not for real, just virtually, voicing a professional waller putting in a new length at Grey Gables for Nigel Pargetter in The Archers on Radio 4. I remembered also my character’s disgust at being asked to put through holes in his handiwork to allow safe passage for badgers.
Another satisfying job in the outdoor exercise department has been the raking of leaves. Narrow yellow willow, palmate spotty maple, fingery golden oak and fawn fingers of ash with a sprinkling of pine needles will all make for good leaf mould to add to the soil, improving structure. In preparing the crude chicken wire round pen to receive this autumn’s rakings I discover a small toad, not best pleased to be disturbed from its dark damp hideaway. I wonder as I covered him with a great duvet of fallen leaves whether this is the same toad I found earlier this year in the bags of compost I’d brought over from the compost bin in my yard garden at Lancaster. I hope there’s more than one about and that this hideaway prove a worthy home for such delightful garden friendly amphibians.
It’s become something of a joke with me ‘Places you must visit on the A487’. Something of a Welsh scenic highway; from mountain passes to estuaries, wild woods and pasture, seaside towns, cliffs and high moors. The subtitle might read ‘What took you so long?’. In all the years of driving down to Pembrokeshire have only now – two weeks ago – got round to turning off between Machynlleth and Aberystwyth at Eglwys-fach (former parish of that great Anglo-Welsh poet R S Thomas) to visit the RSPB wildlife reserve at Ynys-hir. (Eng: Long Island)
Ynys-hir richly rewards visiting, we quickly discovered, because it is so large and can thus boast diverse habitats. From raised bog and reed beds to estuarine marsh, ancient oak woods, fellside and traditionally managed lowland pasture grazed in part by hardy hill ponies. We combined two of the habitat walks on offer, stopping at two of the reserve’s seven hides to take in sightings of waders, ducks and geese at one and an overview from the other atop the wooded hilltop. The third walk – to the saltmarsh estuary of the Dyfi – we look forward to discovering next time we visit.
Another part of this large reserve is the fern covered hill inland, t’other side of the A487, known as Foel Fawr. We spot Red Kite circling. These magnificent birds are now a common sight in Wales and a great conservation success story. Their numbers were reduced to a mere handful of breeding pairs by the mid 20th Century but thanks to the efforts of concerned bodies and naturalists like Bill Condry they were brought back from the edge of extinction and are now something of a tourist attraction in their own right. Condry and his wife Penny rented a cottage on the estate from 1959 and a decade later became the first resident bird wardens when the RSPB bought the site and opened it to the public. Today rare birds getting the conservation attention are the Ospreys breeding just up the road at the Cors Dyfi site run by the Montgomery Wildlife Trust that I had visited earlier this year. However the RSPB warden confided in us that said fish eating breeding pairs actually prefer to do their hunting here, at Ynys-hir!
We stayed overnight with our friends Geoff and Diane at Penrall’t, their wonderful new and second hand bookshop in Machynlleth. A full time retirement project for this enterprising and hard working couple; they cleverly converted the former butcher’s shop into what has to be the neatest and (for its size) most comprehensively stocked little bookshop in Wales. They’ve recently added to the cultural offer with the addition of a gallery for contemporary photography three doors up which is also situated – you’ve guessed it – on the A487. Another attraction in this short stretch of highway is the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) whose seven interconnected galleries showcase the work of a wide range of Welsh artists and craftspeople. Privately run, with grant aid, this fabulous series of commercial galleries is always a joy to visit and the perfect non-metropolitan venue to make new artistic discoveries.
Kim & I were both struck by the current exhibition of the work of ‘The Secret Artist’ Roger Cecil (1942-2015). Abertillery born, working class, whose talent took him to study at the Royal College of Art in London in 1962. He rejected the road to commercialism and the allures of social mobility, returned to his terraced home in the valleys and dedicated the rest of his life to following his own road, living a reclusive existence, inspired by the land and built environment around him. The result , a remarkable run of paintings that has earned Roger Cecil a well deserved, long overdue reputation, since his passing and ‘discovery’, as the most outstanding abstract impressionist that Wales has produced. A genuine eye opener of a show, curated with compassion and insight. A reminder that, as John Lennon put it, ‘a working class hero is something to be’.
A few more garden jobs getting done. Kim takes her tulip bulbs (courtesy of Sarah Raven) and pots them up, covering the surface with gravel. I pull handfuls of weed from the pond and drain on the edges to allow the tiny insects living in them to slide back into the cold waters. I then add the shrivelled greenery to the compost. Some strands of curly hornwort I spare. Make a few posies of them, tied with lead fastening, and drop to the bottom of the new tank pond to start another oxygenating underwater colony. Hopefully this clear out of weed will allow more spread of surface plants, encourage amphibians to return next year whilst still keeping enough cover to keep the still water sweet, control UV and still give shelter to all the various life forms that call the pond home.
There are some lovely poems out there celebrating aspects of the season. I have a soft spot for Edward Thomas of course so here’s one from him – ‘Digging’. The lino cut is by Cathy Duncan. (Apologies for layout: It won’t configure in lines but just runs the text together. I need to interrogate WordPress somehow to let me configure it properly, as ET wrote it!)
Today I think Only with scents, – scents dead leaves yield, And bracken, and wild carrot’s seed, And the square mustard field; Odours that rise When the spade wounds the root of tree, Rose, currant, raspberry, or goutweed, Rhubarb or celery; The smoke’s smell, too, Flowing from where the bonfire burns The dead, the waste, the dangerous, And all to sweetness turns. It is enough To smell, To crumble the dark earth, While the robin sings over again Sad songs of Autumn mirth.
Two recent trips to heritage properties swell the fruit store. The nice young man in the shop at Aydon Castle (English Heritage) is happy for me to pick apples and take windfalls in the courtyard garden of that fine medieval fortified manor house. At Cherryburn (National Trust) I’m encouraged likewise to help myself in the Bewick family’s farmhouse garden. Wish I knew the traditional varieties of the tall apple and pear trees growing there. All of the fruit goes to juicing; a fine flavoursome mix it makes, each batch unique. Also bring back cut back lavender flowers which I place in nooks around the kitchen to dry and subtly flavour the air with their fragrance.
A trip to Manchester for a job interview mid week is the perfect excuse to see old friends in Mosely Street….By which I mean half an hour renewing a long acquaintance with the city art gallery’s grandest residents. Amongst others, Holman Hunt’s morally freighted Hireling Shepherd and the social panorama encompassed within Ford Maddox Brown’s epic Work; the sublimely beguiling Hylas and the Nymphs by Woodhouse. A seasonal joy comes of engaging with the odd charm of Millais’ Autumn Leaves. Like the other wonderful pieces it too exudes powerful illustrative qualities; carrying its inner narrative through colouration and composition.
Back in Northumberland all manner of weather rolling in around and over us each day. Dry spells allow some more putting to bed work in the garden. I pick the last of this season’s apples. James Grieve make perfect juicers so we fill a few more bottles. The Arthur Turners make a perfect puree (especially with elderflower cordial, ginger & brown sugar added). Last of the French beans are a rag tag and bobtail but they taste good. Dismantle the sticks and stack them by the railway hut for another year, whilst the helm goes to compost. Kim picks the last of the mini-tomatoes grown in the greenhouse then sets to washing down glass, trays, pots et al. Whitefly is removed and a sparkle re-set. Elsewhere borders and beds are trimmed, leaves swept and grass mowed one last time, with the exception of the lower half where it’s just too wet to cut.
Autumn Hawkbit, Betony, Birdsfoot Trefoil, Common Cat’s Ear, Musk Mallow, Ox Eye Daisy, Ladies Bedstraw, Ragged Robin, White Campion, Self Heal, Poppy, Ribwort Plantain, Wild Carrot, Yarrow…Traditional meadow flowers redolent of summer days, idyllic pastoral settings, vision of a timeless long lost English countryside. Truly lost. A much quoted statistic that tells us some 97% of traditional hay meadows have been lost since the end of WW2. Luckily a corner is at last being turned; nature friendly farmers, numerous charities, growing numbers of local authorities and diverse communities across the country are taking action to establish new meadows and restore old ones. As individuals, in gardens and allotments, we can all do our bit.
My mission this year is to improve what we already have and increase its potential. To that end late August saw me preparing the garden’s mini-meadow for a minor make over. It’s roughly triangular in shape, on a slight north facing slope, approximately 450 square yards in area. Originally sown as lawn with hard wearing rye grass it gradually got infested with couch grass and more dominant weeds. It looks attractive enough in its own way, and we delight to see it wave and glow under the late Summer sun. Earlier in the growing season some of the hardier meadow plants – Fritillary, Buttercup, Meadow Cranesbill – are able to muscle in with a fringe appearance where the mass of meadow meets lawn. A local contractor comes to strim what he jokingly terms ‘The Jungle’ in late August and his lads rake and carry off most of the cuttings down to the bonfire in the field. This year I did another thorough rake of what was left to expose more of the rough surface, hoping to decrease any enrichment of the grassy lumps beneath. I then concentrated my efforts on a roughly one yard strip all around the outside, giving it another a rake before scarifying to expose enough soil (at least 50%) able to receive meadow flower seed. Finally I honed in on the apex, an area with a footprint of a small tent, and painstakingly removed the turf to get 100% soil exposure. Tried to remove as much of the pernicious couche root & other weeds as possible before finally levelling and tilling with the rake.
By September’s end, taking advantage of the warm dry weather, I buckled down to broadcast the 20 odd varieties of meadow flower seed I’d purchased online from a specialist nursery. All of them suitable for acid clay soils; a combined 100 grams worth at a recommended 1.5 grams per square metre. To that I added miniscular white foxglove seeds a friend had harvested from their garden. Mixed the whole lot with sand for ease of spreading and, trying not to worry too much about exactitude, got to work scattering the cast of thousands. I then tamped the tiny seeds further into the soil, walking over them thoroughly in my big boots, in imitation of stock let out to graze after harvest. The seeds must now pass a long winter freeze before they germinate next Spring. By way of token protection I spread a thin irregular cover of sand and leaf mold over the open apex area. Finally, around the scarified edges I plant mini-clusters of Snakeshead fritillary bulbs to reinforce those already established.
No meadow seed mix is complete without Rhinanathus Minor, Yellow Rattle.Both my seed packets had 5% in each but I’d also purchased an extra 50 grams of it and spread that separately in the border strip sections. This key pathfinder plant, being semi-parasitic, will live off and thus weaken the established sward allowing other meadow plants an increased chance to take root and thrive. Yellow Rattle gets its name from the prominent seed pods that blacken and harden with ripeness before freely shedding their contents on harvesting. All traditional hay meadows have this freewheeling pioneer at their floral heart. I live in hope of success, although it may yet take more than one season for the bulk of flowers to establish. I will, of course, report further on progress (or lack of it) in due course!
Settling down one evening last week we played unwitting hosts to a visitor. A bat had flown in from the garden via the half opened french doors. Our living room is a former hay barn so it had more range than it could have expected in confined quarters. with all other exits barred it took a sudden dive into my neighbouring study (where I sit making these notes tonight) and promptly disappeared without trace. Having sealed the room off that night some time was taken up the next day with me, ably helped by a visiting friend, on step ladders carefully clearing then replacing a great number of books, box files and papers in a vain search for the elusive flying mammal. The only refuge I think it must have found was a run of narrow gaps between exposed stone wall and fitted cupboards. A joiner friend had fitted the cupboard and shelf units two years since, skillfully using his fret saw to accommodate the rough uneven interface between stone and wood. Just enough room, I suspect, for a fold up furry beastie to hang out in safely. Two nights later it appeared out of nowhere and a rather farcical fandango of humans and aerial evacuee took place in living room and then kitchen. With the french doors now fully open it finally swooped low and out into the big wide darkness from whence it had come. Hurray! We’re used to bats regularly flying around the house at nightfall but never, until now, inside it. Almost certainly it’s either a Common or a Soprano Pipistrelle, the most widespread and numerous of the UK’s 17 breeding bat species. Weighing an average 5oz, with 8″ wingspan its aerial hawking of flies, mosquitoes, midges etc can amount to a catch of up to 3,000 insects per animal on a summer’s night! They are almost certainly roosting permanently somewhere on our property; behind soffits, tiles, bargeboards, roofing felt etc. We’re happy to have them in our happy acre but preferably out, not in!
Or more like, the last of Summer. In the sunny still days between the more frequent grey, wet ones we generate productive time in the garden. Our apples – James Grieve, Katy, Discovery – do best out front. Here they are warmed by the sun on that south facing side, sheltered by the road wall and grow as espaliers over heat retentive sandstone. We can rely on a good crop each year with most going to juicing and consumption in the here and now. A good job when you consider how active the resident blackbirds are in pecking and picking their way through the ripening fruit from handy perches, as the picture shows. What they don’t consume wasps, mice, voles and slugs etc will.
I’m convinced we’ve had such a good year for butterflies (and insect life generally) not just because of favourable weather but because the forest of nettles and thistles in the field round our dumping ground/bonfire has proved the ideal nursery for so many of them, especially peacocks and tortoiseshells. It’s always lovely at this time of year to see so many feasting, as here on the profuse masses of Michaelmas daisies in the bank border.
One of this summer’s pet projects has been to create a different kind of pond to the current one, and put it in another part of the garden. To that end I’ve turned a galvanized metal cattle watering trough into a container pond in the kitchen garden and set it in the lea of the stone wall that marks our western boundary, between the new greenhouse and a raised bed. There was a fern already in situ at the wallfoot so have neighboured it with a few more unusual varieties in pots. Re-positioned, and confined to pots, hostas and apple mint which had outgrown their respective berths in the rockery; adding them to the variegated green cohort around the tank. Reluctant to introduce tiny floating millweed to this new watery haven I thoroughly washed the plants taken from the original pond (hornwort, brooklime, scirpus, creeping jenny etc) and added some new ones (iris, lily, water-forget-me-not etc). Need to keep an eye so it does not overflow after heavy rain and also that access is possible for newts toads and frogs as some of the aqua plants are on stands near the surface with overhanging foliage….May need to introduce a small ramp or similar to be sure.
Apparently you can only get plastic baler twine these days. So when a friend who had attended the farm sale of another friend who was retiring saw this old style natural product amongst the host of articles she picked it up for Kim, who loves and appreciates such telling things. It will no doubt appear, in whole or part, in one or more of her future compositions. I can’t help but ponder that biodegradable material like this should be making a comeback in an age which now values all things sustainable and recyclable.
Last weekend I went down with a cold so missed accompanying Kim to one of our favourite local agricultural shows. Our river rises on the watershed between Northumberland and the Scottish Border. The upper valley at Falstone has proudly hosted its annual shepherds show since 1885. I asked Kim to write a few lines about her experience of the event…
Every year in late August sees the Falstone Border Shepherds Show. Up the North Tyne Valley, along a single track, and into a small sheltered field outside the pretty village not far from Kielder Water, I am reminded of farming days with some nostalgia. Wearing my judge’s badge and wandering past the penned sheep, the steady weathered shepherds leaning over stock, the border collies drifting through to sheepdog trials, the smell of wet grass drying in a surprising day of heat, I head towards the industrial tent to help in the looking over of children’s submissions to the art classes.
Thank goodness the partner is an ex teacher and knows much about childrens’ handwriting stages, while I find it difficult to decide between free and funny watercolours, collaged vegetable faces, and interpretations of northern dark skies on flower pots (though we all agree on the special prize going to a starry sparkly one of these).
I meet many old friends, catch up with news, and happily spend too long marveling at prize vegetables, gardens on a plate, and the beautifully carved shepherds’ sticks. This is a simple uncommercial show, meant for gathering at the end of summer, and I love it. Back home I quietly hang my little badge up at home and smile.
A day of time travelling with grandchildren 9 and 6 years of age, proved a delight for all concerned one day last week. Beamish in Co.Durham has been ‘The Living Museum of the North’ since its foundation in 1970 and now covers some 350 acres. To me it represents all that’s best about the region’s culture; by the people, for the people and of the people. Worth the wait to get in once we’d parked up. A number of visits are required to get any feel for the whole. Today we started off with the 1900’s pit village reassembled on site – church, school, silver band hall, cottages with gardens etc. For me though the latter part of our visit was the most poignant and atmospheric…a time where the seemingly unchanging agricultural world really did start to give way to the Industrial. The 1820’s late Georgian period saw great social, political and economical changes. What they’ve managed to create at the Pockerley site beautifully captures a world where intense manual labour with horse and oxen was giving way to a multitude of iron engines powered by coal and steam.
Comfortably situated atop a small hill, Pockerley New House was built in the early 1700’s and sits next to (but is not physically connected with) the Old House next door, which dates from the 1440’s and was originally a pele or bastle in the age of Anglo-Scottish raiding. Along with the extensive farm outbuildings they are the only original buildings on the Beamish estate. The Pockerley was still the centre of a tenant farming operation right up until 1990. The delightful stepped front garden is on three levels – flower & herb, vegetable & orchard – giving way to a patchwork of small fields under ‘rig (ridge) & furrow’ cultivation alongside traditional meadows, partitioned by split oak or thorn hedge and hazel hurdles.
The old house is dark and cool. As a former defensive structure it has massive thick walls, small windows, a cheese press, worn flag floors, large undercroft. The new hall by contrast oozes a modest prosperity. Wonderful lived in feel, mix of best (carpeted parlour) and everyday (large flagged kitchen & entranceway) settles and rag rugs, artifacts and decorations, worn & warm, coal fired kitchen range, lots of small interconnecting rooms, creaking narrow stairs, simple and sufficient…Feels as if the inhabitants had just stepped out and were to be expected home any moment.
I imagine that stout political reformer and countryside advocate William Cobbett calling by for lively state of the nation conversation with the tenant farmer which we would later read about in one of his ‘Rural Rides’. His contemporary Thomas Bewick was born and grew up in a similar yeoman farmhouse by the banks of the Tyne at Cherryburn. The great naturalist and printmaker would have been equally at home in such a setting, which he might have come by on one of his many long walks about the north-east. Beamish has a great advantage over the National Trust and country house owners who open their properties to the public in making nearly everything they have on site is as ‘hands on’ and experiential as it can be. The atmosphere created is as charged and realistic as the steam engine we see & hear slicing its determined course through the otherwise peaceful pastoral scene. In contemporary art terms: more of a Turner landscape than Constable is animated before our eyes.
The Pockerley Waggonway allows non stop comings and goings of a prototype mine locomotive, ‘The Steam Elephant’, which has benn reconstructed on site from an original oil painting of 1815. It tears through the rural topography at a steady 5mph, returning at end of day to the 1825 engine shed it shares with a replica of Stephenson’s famous ‘Locomotion No 1’. We queue patiently to ride the rails, peering from the open carriageway at the young volunteer engineers, blackened like medieval imps, taking the revolutionary grease black creature through its steaming piston pushing paces….Only a short run there and back but worth every moment!
We finished today’s ventures into the 1820’s with a visit to the nearby recently opened Joe the Quilter’s Cottage. (The first building to be complete in their £11million lottery funded ‘Remaking Beamish’ project). Joe Hedley, a cottage industry quilt maker whose work was known and admired beyond his native north-east was brutally murdered at home on or about 3rd January 1826. The crime was never solved, despite the public outcry and reward offered by the crown. Joe’s original humble cottage just down the road from us at Warden, by the confluence of the north & south Tyne rivers, was demolished in 1872. But those clever people at Beamish, together with community volunteers, working from an original print of the place and official post murder inventory managed to identify its site and remove the original flagstone floor. The distinctive local sandstone and oak used in building walls and roof frame along with tons of heather for thatching were all sourced in Northumberland. Beamish’s blacksmiths made door locks, hinges and candlesticks. The broadcloth quilts old Joe produced at home were of the highest quality (example pictured) and much sought after by the gentry. Living alone in such a relatively isolated spot the poor man was clearly a vulnerable target for those intent on robbery with extreme violence.