After the road and off road roaring around of the recent car rally it’s an apposite time to feature a more traditional and leisurely form of transport. Our rural thoroughfare is regularly used by horses and riders. The neighbours at North Farm for instance have developed livery as part of their operation and nearly all farms hereabouts have a horses or ponies on site. The fox hunters hold occasional meets in the area. A road safety campaign – Dead? or Dead Slow? – is currently being promoted through a joint initiative from Northumberland County Council and the British Horse Society (BHS).
The figures quoted by the BHS are sobering. Over the last 9 years 315 horses and 43 humans have been killed in incidents on UK roads. In the last year, of incidents reported, 73% were caused by cars passing too closely to horses, 32% of riders reported road rage or abuse while 31% were caused by vehicles passing too quickly. BHS also urges riders to always wear bright or reflective clothing along with fitted covers for their mounts as well as LEDs when necessary. All good advice, and timely as Winter draws in.
For many years the RAC Rally was a popular event in and around the forest. Remote location, oodles of space and absence of population made it the ideal location to test the skills and resilience of the nation’s rally drivers & navigators. TV coverage gave it great publicity and profile. Eventually the kudos and rough glamour faded as roads and tracks, torn up and unusable, needed repair or replacement and other even wilder locations in Wales and Scotland presented better alternatives for the dedicated petrolheads. Today an annual motorsport event still takes place right on our doorstep, albeit on a reduced scale with less environmental damage. The Roger Albert Clark Rally is the longest of its kind in the UK, covering 300 miles in forests and 700 miles on public roads. More than 100 classic cars from the 1970s and 80s took part in the regional leg of the event last weekend, which lasted 12 hours and covered 100 miles beginning and ending at Carlisle. We heard the competitors before we saw them as day turned into night, gearing high and low along narrow twisting roads. What photos I took with the phone were only possible because the vehicles had to slow for our 90 degree corner. Later, going out for the evening, we scented the lingering petrol perfume on the freezing air and passed pulled over support vehicles and the odd customised car of bright stripe all caked in mud doubling back to complete this day’s leg of the overall five day event.
One tree that really thrives in our temperate wet climate is willow (Genus: Salix). There are 400 varieties worldwide. The narrow leaved osier types that thrive in the damp corners of our garden provide good windbreaks and grow in the heaviest of clay soils. They provide nectar in early spring for butterflies & moths and are beloved of the needle billed tit family who thrive on the insect life sequestered there. Willows are the first trees to break into leaf in Spring and the last to fall in Autumn. Luckily none of our plants are near to drains where their tough aggressive roots can cause real problems, cracking pipes or blocking flows. An earlier ‘Country Diary’ entry recorded our coming back from North Devon with cuttings from red and green willows planted in marshland at the foot of friends’ commercial apple orchard. The quickness of these slender sinuous trees is remarkable and their utility to man down the millennia unquestioned. The supple strength and flexibility of withies (rod like cut whips) are perfect for making all manner of containers, from every kind of basket to fish traps coracles and coffins. Living sculptures – domes, tunnels etc – are playful features in many public gardens. Its healing properties too – the active ingredient of Salicyclic Acid in the bark – are well known. (The synthesised form being Aspirin). The wood has also been used commercially for the best quality artists charcoal.
The village post office, newsagent and shop is at the heart of our local community and greatly valued. The son of the owners is keen to make it more relevant by promoting regionally produced products and by being more creative with the two window frontages. Our friend Amanda at Southridge farm got involved in this plan and recruited Kim to help, who in turn got me to join them. We cut and stripped our red and green shrubs, now well established between pond and field boundary, to use as wicker work, fashioning from small bundles a whole batch of stars, in all sizes. Sara and the grandchildren on a weekend visit joined in too so our workshop production rate soared! Great fun and very satisfying, quietly putting the pentagrams together; securing, binding and trimming. A & K and another friend Margaret worked out a design to fill the window in situ and hung it with wires. The largest star was highlighted with LEDs for effect, set in a firmament of tiny stars footed by evergreen holly and firs.
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 by 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 operator. As late as this summer our mature ill cat was catching baby rabbits and decapitating them. We never found the heads but their 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 & still 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 old oak post, 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. It was that quality that allowed our youngest grandchildren, Emily & Lois, when visiting as toddlers to overcome their fear of felines. Here’s a picture that captures that relationship.
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!