Living on a ridge between two tributary streams exposes us to wind but relieves us of flood worries if we were burnside. What we didn’t anticipate when the road was re-surfaced last year was the problem it would cause through run off. The big hay field is saturated after a month of rain and water spills over onto the smooth tarmac which in turn hits our curb and flows into the front garden where it pools before eventually soaking away. I’ve been filling hessian sandbags and putting them roadside to divert the overflow past the gate onto the verge. Meanwhile our farming neighbours struggle to get hay and silage to the ring feeders for their sheep in the fields, the gateways everywhere a churning mass of mud. A neighbouring mixed flock of ewes – cheviots, texels and mules – display yellow raddle marks on their backs where they’ve been tupped (put to the ram), reminding us that Spring and lambing time is not actually that far off.
The westerly wind pushes the rain sideways during the latest westerly blow. Suddenly water is dripping into the living room hearth from the chimney above, so buckets get put between log burner and wall to catch the drips. The slates rattle in the bedroom at night and the window leaks. Even the water in the toilet bowl is oscillating, affected by the many small draughts driven by the storm.
We sit out one evening on the back porch, for the first time since before Christmas, and are delighted to be joined by a pair of wrens whirring in. Fleeting acrobats in the fierce wind, settling for seconds just feet from us before zipping off again, in and out of the ivy or feeding through the gravel garden walks. Notice in the gloom the tell tale whiteness of droppings on the lip of an abandoned swallow’s nest under the top beam of the veranda. The wee things cluster for warmth while roosting in winter and this will be one of their seasonal hide outs. The birds high pitched chirruping an alarm to mark our unexpected intrusion into their night time feeding routine.
Dry and warm indoor activities bring the greatest pleasures now in the dark quarter of the year. Early in February I went singing with the valley’s community choir up at the national park’s landscape discovery centre, by the Roman wall. It was to mark the ‘Lost Words’ touring exhibition featuring Robert Macfarlane’s words & Jackie Morris’s images. Surprisingly good acoustic in what is a clinical and angular modern setting. We sang our celebratory songs of the elements from the balcony and later at reception level as guests mingled and socialised between the public spaces.
This week I gave the table quiz I had set on behalf of the countryside charity, the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) at a hotel in our market town. Full house in the nicest of pub venues and a very happy evening all round. Eight teams fought it out amicably over 48 questions and a picture round on a theme of ‘England and the English Countryside’. (Kim my ace support on the adding up front!) Everyone delighted it went down so well as a novel social event, a first for the county branch.
Spending time in the kitchen is special in winter too of course. We made this year’s batch of marmalade when the Seville oranges were about in January and I’ve gone back to making oat, rye and beer bread which not only smells wonderful but retains its fine flavour as toast…. Perfect in fact with home made marmalade!
What is…unattractive, contaminating, negative, degrading, a danger to wildlife and costly to get rid of? Yes, you’ve guessed it, litter. In town or country it’s a blight on the environment. I’ve taken to picking up every can I find when out walking or cycling along the winding C road a mile or so either side of the house. To be fair, it’s not a big problem in this sparsely populated corner of the land, but the sight of it – in our case mainly discarded soft drink tins – spurs me on to pick up & pop in our recycling bin.
comprehensive According to the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) men aged 18-25 often see it as cool to drop litter but hauliers, smokers, users of fast food outlets too are prime littering groups in society. Official figures show that England’s local authorities spent £56 million removing chewing gum from pavements and another £50 million clearing fly tipping. In town there are still people paid to pick up litter, but in the country the chances of a bottle in a hedgerow or ditch being picked up are virtually nil. Apparently last year some 60,000 volunteers took part in litter picks around the country. (I count myself an auxillary in this citizen army). The introduction of a charge for plastic bags nationwide has been a great success and a bottle deposit & return scheme could be the same, if the political will is there to set it up. There are many behavioural and economic buttons to be pressed to get our throwaway culture to change. A greater emphasis on re-usability for instance.
Litter is the end of a process of production, consumption and disposal. How ironic that the multi-national corporations whose products head up the drop list – like Mars Wrigley, Pepsi & Coca Cola – are the principal sponsors of charity Keep Britain Tidy in their worthy efforts to clear up. CPRE argue that producers of packaging and fast food companies should be paying the cost of clear up and not local authorities, who have suffered drastic government funding cuts in recent years and have reduced environmental services accordingly. We Brits are Europe’s largest consumers of food and drink on the move so no surprise that cans and food containers are the most numerous discarded objects in any roadside litter pick. Will anything change over the next few years? Let’s hope so!
Writing here at my desk by the porch window I hear a low rat a tat tat noise somewhere. Turning I see at the garden window the familiar form of a blue tit doing something decidedly unfamiliar. Seemingly feasting with its needle bill on what to me are invisible specks of food on the glass. Either that or it’s trying to tell me to put more fat balls in the feeder that hangs there on its metal crook pole. But no, the little birds constant foraging are at the heart of the matter. Lack of observation on my part means am late to discover what the tribe of them have been up to out there. In refilling the feeder I suddenly see the damage they’ve done to the wooden window frame around those small panes. Tranches of wood excavated in the search for insects or larva. Another repair job for the next spell of dry weather. I promptly move pole & container further off, repositioning it in the arc of studio bed recently cleared, weeded and mulched with bark by Kim.
This event revived awed childhood memories of the ravages inflicted by tits on our doorstep delivery of gold top milk bottles of a winter morning. It also reminded me of something I’d come across much more recently: references to one of the longest ecological studies of marked individual wild animals in the world, here on our national doorstep. Wytham Woods is an extensive ancient broadleaf woodland donated by a local land owning family to nearby Oxford University during WW2. This ‘laboratory with leaves,’ run by the department of Zoology, is also open to the public at set times during the year. The university’s scientists have been methodically studying 40 generations of the titmice family and the interdependent ecological community in which they live since 1947. There are now 1,000 numbered nest boxes throughout the woods and every nestling is tagged. In the autumn and winter a grid of feeders operate twice a week and all birds visiting are recorded and logged on camera. Perhaps the most significant discovery made by this extraordinary study relates to climate change. The birds now breed three weeks earlier than they did in the 1960’s. Spring arrives sooner than it did and oak trees are coming in to leaf earlier. Caterpillars feed on the emergent leaves and the birds predate large numbers of them to feed their large brood of nestlings. The parents, the study also shows, can adjust egg incubation depending on the glut or scarcity of the caterpillars. Another fascinating aspect of social behaviour concerns bird interaction when moving in flocks on winter forage. Come breeding time they will choose to site their nests nearest those who have already proved good neighbours; respecting territorial boundaries or who best co-operate in dealing with predators. The official website has links and extracts from TV news or features about the study. http://wythamtits.com/#what-is-the-wytham-tit-project
The first full moon of the new year is known as a ‘Wolf Moon’. Wolves are breeding now and their night time howls are part of that mating ritual. The nearest we got to seeing predatory activity in the middle of the night was at this time last year when Kim, on her way to the bathroom, caught sight in the full moonlight of a dog fox elegantly acing through our yard. It is said that their rabbit kill rate tends to increase with greater illumination, though I also think their prey must be better placed to see them coming and have a better chance of escape! In Buddhism, other eastern religions and native north American folklore rabbits or hares replace the European ‘Man in the Moon’ interpretation of lunar surface markings.
The ancient association of odd behaviour and mania with the waxing moon is of course well known. ‘Lunacy’ derives from Luna, the Roman goddess of the moon, who rides her silver chariot across the heavens each night. Kim & I seemed to be subject to more disturbed sleep patterns than normal on the night of the most recent lunar eclipse (10/11 Jan). Waking early I mistook moonlight seeping in around window blind and skylight shutters for the early dawn so prepared to rise, only realising otherwise when I was sufficiently awake to check my bedside watch. Never mind, the views from the garden windows, of utter stillness in highlighted definition, brought a calming sense of wonder, an eventual return to bed and renewed slumber.
Imagine the scene. The night before D-Day, June 1944. Standing with ground crew by the hangers your eardrums threaten to explode with the noise of 20 C-47 Douglas aircraft taking off from Station 479, a US Air Force base in Lincolnshire. Their task is is to spearhead the allied invasion by dropping paratroops, supplies and equipment behind German lines in Normandy. For months these same aircraft, flying just above the waves of the channel to avoid radar, have been systematically dropping navigational equipment at key locations in preparation for this moment, the greatest sea borne landing in military history.
Fast forward to Boxing Day 2019. The only noise you hear is the constant though subdued drone of the AI, out of sight beyond the forest’s western edge. From time to time you also hear gunshots; game is being hunted somewhere. Our airfield was built rapidly, to a standard pattern, during 1943 and handed over to the US 9th Air Force whose pathfinder squadrons were based here; some 3,000 personnel living in huts and tents at one time. Closed at the end of hostilities in 1945, the base was handed back to the RAF who used it to store munitions. RAF North Witham closed for good in 1960 and the land was given over to the Forestry Commission (now Forestry England) who gradually replaced woodland that had been cleared to make way for the airfield in the first place. Oak, beech and other native species now proliferate alongside stands of pine. Colonising birch has made inroads into the concrete and tarmac runways while willow and alder are well settled in bogland by the original perimeter road. Big rectangles of concrete that make up Runway 30 remain fully exposed and the whole expanse remains deeply impressive when its vanishing point is obscured by today’s atmospheric grey mizzle, framed by bare trunks or swags of distant conifer.
In recent years this otherwise forgotten architectural remnant of war has been the site of a series of illegal mass raves, which explains the flat bed of an articulated lorry blocking the vehicular access by the official car park. We’d love to return in Summer as these woods are also home to two nature reserves rich in rare butterflies. Volunteers have registered sightings of purple emperor (dwellers in the deciduous tree canopy) as well as numerous sightings of silver washed fritillary and common blue alongside rare species like grizzled and dingy skippers. Those same spirited volunteers turn up every March in working parties to patiently clear scrub and saplings in the rides between woodland. These sheltering glades are the equivalent of wartime runways for butterflies and moths, securing their precious life cycles and enriching our own lives in the process.
The Summer nests uncovered by autumn winds / Some torn, others dislodged, all dark / Everyone sees them: low or high in a tree / Or hedge, or single bush, they hang like a mark. (From ‘Birds’ Nests’ by Edward Thomas)
Well, not quite everyone….I was oblivious to many until recently. A good half dozen springtime homes now finally logged around the premises. One or two are remarkably complete, despite the ravages of rude weather. I particularly love this little cone shaped nest, lined with wool and flecked with moss, woven into an intersection of branches in the copse that shelters one side of our yard at the west end. Having observed pipits active round that quarter in the summer I thought it may have been one of theirs but on discovering both meadow and tree varieties are usually ground nesters have had to revise my opinion. Now believe they’re more likely to be the seasonal abode of a member of the tit family, as the other nests in the east copse – lodged in the dense branch framework of either pine or elder – are identical in construction. For the second year running all the usual small garden birds have declined boxes put up for them around the place, clearly preferring their traditional open air pitches…Clearly they know what’s best!
Meanwhile inside the house there’s an almost daily awakening of small tortoiseshell butterflies. Having secreted a winter berth to settle down in, either warmth or light has roused them out of hibernation. One will appear out of nowhere to flutter noisily around a lamp shade, crawl unsteadily over carpet or repetitively climb window panes. I gently capture them in a jam jar and remove each delicate torpid form to the garage workshop; hoping they will find the cool relatively undisturbed haven they need in order to fully shut down for the season.
40 tonne loads of timber pass our door on an regular basis. Extracted from the country’s biggest man made forest the stripped conifer trunks are on their way to be chipped for board or for burning in a new power station. Once a year though, since 2000, three specially grown trees from Kielder are spared this mundane destiny. A 45 year old, 40 foot high Sitka Spruce along with two smaller specimens are felled, carefully wrapped and loaded onto one of the local contractor’s flat bed lorries. The boss himself drives the precious load all the way down to London. Very early the next day he delivers them to officials of the Palace of Westminster. A crane then winches the biggest tree into its prominent place in the square outside Parliament, where it is decked with lights. The middle size tree goes into the great medieval hall while the smallest ends up in the Speaker’s apartment.
Trees from the forest also featured in another star turn last week. We went to see ‘Robin of Sherwood’, the mass cast Christmas show from our remarkably talented amateur drama company which they stage for four nights in the Town Hall of the biggest village in the valley. Both sides of the spacious auditorium were lined with conifers from the forest, while scaffolding on one side allowed the players to run through the dense greenwood above us. AV back projection on the stage allowed more forest to be projected while town scenes saw the rolling in and out of painted flats. Nottingham Castle being burnt down by Robin and his men was vividly created by fiery stage lighting & stage fighting. Unlike many other amateur companies nationwide there is no shortage of young men hereabouts willing to take roles and many children too had parts. Brilliant community production that created a memorable immersive experience.
I also loved the themed bar at the back of the hall that they used for scenes involving Friar Tuck. The tent like structure had beer taps dispensing a local brewery’s fine products, with names like ‘Merry Men’s Delight’ and ‘Friar Tuck’s Tipple’. Home made mini pies and pasties were also on offer. In the raffle at the interval we won one of the play’s spare props – a leather purse of gold wrapped chocolate coins! All in all a lovely heartwarming and laughter filled way to launch the Yuletide festival.
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.