Pilgrims

A weekend away in one of my favourite parts of the world, the Pembrokeshire coast. This part, around Newport, on the long distance coastal path I know relatively well and experiencing it in every season (outside of Winter) down the years only adds to its charm and natural beauty. Our autumn ramble this Sunday took us from the road bridge crossing the upper tidal limits of the River Nevern, whose short and rapid course takes it from the Preseli Mountains to Newport Bay. Mercifully free of industrial or agricultural run off it’s a clear and healthy stream running through ancient woodland and bog for most of its length. Our route picks up the old pilgrim track linking sea to the ancient church at Nevern village. Forage as we go; windfall apples in a box in the church porch and blackberries in the bank hedge. (Have for supper later with custard – divine!) Features of the walk: an abandoned cottage that every visit claws further back into the grip of nature; inviting pools you want to go swimming with brown trout; rusted wreck of long abandoned grass cutter; greenlane with stone banks bursting with harts tongue fern while other higher stretches support a line of dense packed beech trees; late cut of silage all black bagged up in steep meadow; surprising paired yellows of toadflax in the lane along with flashes of pink campion. Insects on tiny balls of ivy flowers for the season’s best nectar. Most striking, stated in slate, the Pilgrims Cross and below another gashed in the smoothed rock. Saint Brynach’s church by the pretty tributary stream with its famous Celtic cross & bleeding yews still a place for the modern pilgrim to visit, more likely by car than on foot, and justly famed at that. The hat and cheery invite to support a relatively new feature to greet the visitor!

Odds & Ends

With the swallows gone, the nights drawing in and the temperature dropping more than rising, we start to readjust for the months to come. A good crop of damsons this year thanks to netting of trees still small enough to allow it. The raspberry crop is pathetic but its better than the none at all of 2017. Apples have done well and it’s great to have the cheery juicy reds of Katy appearing along the wall. Nicely contrasted with sunflowers that have truly appreciated this Summer’s warmth! It is also the first year our little pear tree has borne fruit in its sheltered spot by the spinney. Out on the road I have prepared and seeded a previous ragged and weed infested edge and sown with grass seed. In the Summer I’d put stone chippings down on the short funnel of drive to lessen water running off the new surface calibration pooling and icing there in winter. Roadside drainage ditches have been cleared once again and the carriageway widened using compressed earth banks, replacing the soft verges in many places to allow safer passing and reduce the ‘drop off’ dangers following the Summer’s tarmac resurfacing work. Our neighbours dozen hogs remain on the crags and eat everything green we pile on the bonfire. High hawthorn tree hedge on the east now artfully cut back. (I’ve the scratches to prove it) and Kim has cut, tidied, cleared and generally lifted the large cast of shrubs & perenniels to make them all look very presentable. Butterflies (Peacock & small white) alongside hover flies and bees hone in on the swathes of Michaelmas daisies in the main bank and annuals like petunia and cosmos look at their best when the sun emerges to cherish and burnish their colour and foliage. The ash has ominous sackfuls of keys dangling on every swaying branch and the pretty mountain ash in its wake is reddening up and the berries cluster. Wasps gain egress to finish off any apples pecked by birds….There’s always work to be done in the garden but for now it looks as good as it can be, by our standards at least, at season’s turn.

Reservoir

We recently joined the last guided walk of the season at Catcleugh Reservoir, led by Tony, with the help of his friend Ken and wife Margaret. The former are volunteer rangers with the Northumberland National Park and these tours of the last Blackhouse at Catcleugh together with the dam itself are held some 6 times a year and last up to 2 hours. We had a wonderful time and the story Tony revealed to us is absolutely fascinating…

By the end of the 19th Century Newcastle Gateshead’s population levels had rocketed and there was a real crisis in housing and utility supply. A new source of fresh water was urgently needed and Newcastle & Gateshead Water Company undertook to create a new reservoir below Carter Bar on the headwaters of the River Rede. They started preliminary works in 1889 and the whole enterprise was effectively completed by 1905 with its filling. A temporary village for the army of construction workers and their families was rapidly erected on site, a sheltering wood planted and a 16 mile narrow gauge railway from West Woodburn built to handle the vast amounts of material needed. The pipeline still follows that now redundant track, taking Catleugh’s water down to the series of smaller lower reservoirs around Hallington and on to the conurbation. Catcleugh village was well provided for by the standards of the time. Music and dancing, legal (& illegal) drinking, elementary and further education, outings and excursions, weddings, births & funerals all played their parts in defining and shaping this thriving instant community made up of people who came from all over the UK to live and in some cases, die here. Work & social life is well documented in photographs, newspaper reports (25 years of village news in the local weekly newspaper), court reports, coroners inquests, journals, memorabilia, company accounts etc. Today the only sign of past occupation is a rough track through the woodlands below the A68, the resident engineers imposing stone built 12 bedroom mansion now a holiday let and the last restored Blackhouse (workers wooden hut so called because they were sealed in tar). 47 such uniquely styled habitations constituted the village. A fascinating experience wandering room to room today, filled as they are with artifacts recreating domestic existence here 120 years ago, getting such a strong sense of lives led. Later, with Ken as guide, our small party climbed through the lovely, now mature, woods of deciduous & pine to view the reservoir and dam, its immensely wide stone lined overflow, along with grand meter house at bottom and elegant valve house at top. A still functioning resource and a monument to another age. A great public service engineering triumph built in the most challenging of situations. The labour may have been hard but the wages were above average and the workforce enjoyed union representation. The villagers had a contemporary chronicler too in the shape of Billy Bell, the Redesdale Roadman, known as ‘The Border Bard’. His rhyming ballads are a wonderful contemporary source, adding colour and resonance to the documentation. (His work still in print and copies can be had at Bellingham Heritage Centre) Our tour finished with an extended visit to tucked away tiny Byrness Church, just down the A68, to see the remarkable memorial window from 1903, unique in being entirely paid for by worker subscription, honouring in a very moving way the 70 men women and children who died during the project’s construction. This beautiful artwork also features the only known stain glass representation of a steam railway! Tony, our modest and gentlemanly guide, was concerned that no book about the Catcleugh story so he has put his own money into rectifying the situation by privately publishing an illustrated definitive history. (There are only 4 copies). There’s a fabulous story here just waiting to be told to a wider audience, in theatre or film, that would resonate in our own time – a project for public good & the people who made it possible…We all, in effect, raise a glass to them every day of our lives!

Jamaica Inn

Probably the best known hostelry in Cornwall, thanks to Daphne Du Maurier’s full blooded page turner of a novel, Jamaica Inn lies at the heart of Bodmin Moor. Her wonderful tale set in the early C19th, and penned in the 1930’s, makes it appear remote and inaccessible. In reality today it lies by the A30 dual carriage and was (on my last visit) highly commercial and devoid of genuine character. Never mind, that should not detract from the inspiration and the imagination of the great writer who truly loved and understood the spirit of her adopted county and its people. At the diametrically opposite corner of England lies Northumberland. Different accent but very similar moorland and a shared history of unlawful violence in days of yore; wreckers & smugglers in the south west, Reivers and cross border raids in the north-east. I mention all this because I recently got involved accent coaching for a local promenade dramatisation of the above. The location was a Victorian manor house at the heart of a 5,000 acre estate high up the valley, most of it moor and rough grazing, close to the Scottish border. The owners are big supporters of the arts in all its forms and their support was crucial. The barns and gardens at the back of the grand house, with its sheltering woodlands, proved a wonderful setting for an audience of up to 60, over three nights. The main barn, candlelit and straw littered, was fitted out as the eponymous tavern. I particularly loved the way the wrecking scenes on the coast were staged using AV; big bales became rocks, sand covered the flagstones while a back projected screen with sea beating down on a cove shore gave a whole new dimension to proceedings. At the evening rehearsals I attended the cast did their best, with various degrees of success, to get their heads around what was for many of them a completely alien tongue. Never mind. This was a wonderful amateur theatre operation on all levels by a dedicated company with high technical standards and a welcome and constant ambition to create great drama in wonderful settings. Their previous outdoor shows included Hamlet in a local Bastle (fortified house) and Jane Eyre in a Georgian Rectory. It was also a lovely thing for me to be involved, however peripherally, in a wider creative arts project in my adopted rural home. One nice touch of many was having an interval bar in the courtyard with ‘Jem’s Ale’ on tap and costumed maids selling bit size home made pasties. Another was the way we all arrived up the winding lanes. With no parking at the venue we left our cars in the nearest farmyard (the farmer was in the cast) and were ferried back and forth in a vintage single deck bus. Dear me, I thought, I could be back home in the west, catching this very same type of vehicle into my home town, and the amateur production I would have been involved in as a teenager….Transported indeed, in every way. Just perfect!

Country Show

My first ever visit to our local show and country festival, one of the biggest and most popular in our corner of the country. Miraculously the wet cold weather gave way to sunshine and high banks of rolling cloud. Somehow, always being held for the last 175 years at the end of August, the Summer’s passing is well marked. A lovely relaxed afternoon spent with visiting family and bumping into friends and neighbours as we mingled with the crowds, experiencing the range of exhibitions and events. Everything from falconry displays, vintage vehicles and a fell race to Cumberland & Westmorland style wrestling and Northumbrian piping. I loved those endearing and enduring sections covering baking and craft, handwriting and novelties (piggy bank, key ring, door stop or teapot). Horses, ponies, working dogs and sheep much in evidence too as you’d expect at such a traditional gathering. We followed the youngsters taking the jumps on their ponies, all very skilled and well turned out. The sheep on show in the pens – Texels, Blue Faced Leicesters, Mules, Scottish Face (pictured) and Shetland – all looked fine specimens. (I’d not realised before the wee Shetland breed had so many attractive shades of browns and greys in its fleece colouration) Joined my friends in the community choir to entertain folk in the traditional music tent at the end of the afternoon, and was relieved to get through our repertoire with aplomb! Finished the day among the crowd watching the inter hunt relay race (horses and quads) in the main ring, before heading off to home for supper.

Tuscan Art

Realising that we would be staying in the area of Tuscany that was the birthplace and main area of work of the Renaissance master Piero della Franchesca (1415?-1492) opened exciting possibilities to experience that legacy. In relation to the life and role of the countryside the Madonna del Parto (Pregnant Madonna) comes closest to reflecting those rural roots. This precious work was commissioned by an unknown donor for the little parish church of the hilltop village of Monterchi at some point in the late 1450’s. A fresco, that analysis has shown was painted section by section in seven days, shows a life size virgin Mary revealed standing in a pavilion by a pair of mirror image angels. I found it a serene, enigmatic and luminous work of rare power & fine detail that captivates and intrigues. The quiet artistic genius who composed and crafted this masterpiece was a skilled mathematician too. Following an earthquake in the C18th and later the demolition of the cemetery chapel it had been moved to, the work was given its own museum in 1992. Painstakingly restored it has been further interpreted with lavishly produced introductory film and educational workshop space. For centuries local expectant women would come to the church (& later chapel) to pray for a safe delivery and leave little gifts for the pregnant virgin. We were struck to see a little box next the glass fronted work today, full of cards & offerings, so clearly the tradition continues. Piero’s C15th Madonna had replaced a much earlier fresco dedicated to a ‘Madonna of the Milk’. A touchstone matter of fertility & renewal in this quiet rural heartland which also indicates an earlier pre-christian history, long since gone and yet curiously ever present.

A visit I made on my own on another day was to the delightful town museum at the heart of the hilltop town of Anghiari , and that too proved another revelation. No big names here so few visitors even on this public holiday, the feast of the assumption. I was grateful for the quiet unhurried air that made for contemplative viewing as I ascended the stairs of the tall medieval palazzo. One by one beautiful restored examples of polychromatic wooden sculpture revealed themselves – an art form that flourished here in the Tiber valley during the 13th and 14th century. As previously noted, the valley’s hills roundabout are clothed, then as now, with dense woodlands. The most famous practitioner was Jacopo della Quercia and a fine complete wooden Madonna & child has a room all to itself. My favourites though were the unknown Tuscan masters whose more fragmented time worn pieces still radiated a simple unaffected intensity grounded in innocence and humility. Interesting to reflect that the young Piero, growing up in neighbouring Sansepolcro, would have been surrounded by such imagery as a child and how this form of religious iconography would have fed into his creative awareness and later practice.

Tuscan Nights

It’s a lovely restful thing to sit out under the stars talking, eating and drinking as night falls and the sound generated by nearby unseen crickets increases. Known as stridulation and caused by the insects rubbing their legs together as part of their mating and status strategies, it is almost birdlike but louder, more intense and unrelenting. Consistency reduces the impact and the insect chorus becomes tolerated like traffic or workplace noise; the default background setting. A single cricket lands on the table. Graced by long antennae and sudden agility. (Curiosity gets the better of it as we find the poor creature drowned in the wasp trap next morning). Other regular night time visitors are large round form beetles, their blackness tinged a shiny deep blue under night light. After rain a large toad emerges from under the huge rosemary bushes that fringe and fragrance the patio to contemplate proceedings. Every night, arriving and departing without fail within a two hour span, are a score of hornets. Thankfully they are not interested in us but reserve all their energy hovering and clambering around the long life bulb in its glass shade that acts as household outside illumination, high on a corner near the door. Their constant buzz harmonises with the cricket chorus, as they rise and fall to embrace the bright white light. We notice the wide eaves are under worked with brick to discourage any nesting. To complete and enhance the nocturnal scene a troupe of skinny cats, parents and kittens, like strolling players ply their acrobatic foraging skills on every level around us. Moths and beetles particularly harassed by their play and slay games. But the children love them and lend names to each and every black or tabby personality.

Tuscan Days

A wonderful week away with the extended family, based at an old converted farmhouse high on a wooded hillside above Anghiari on the Tuscany/Umbria border. A ten minute testing drive up a switchback unmade track finally reveals a  tremendous view across to the Valtiberna, valley of the river Tiber. Being August it is unsurprisingly hot, then thunderstorms sweep in, with heavy rain clearing the air before blue skies come again. We eat out every evening under a sheltering wooden pergola thickly laced with wisteria. Rarely would you see the seed pods at home but here the velvet pods grow long and dense just like runner beans. A striking feature is the old almond tree that reaches up to the roof line, retained for aesthetic and sentimental reasons by the owner. By the late 1960’s these remote agricultural holdings were being abandoned. A tough unrelenting life for the occupants in the modern era with only water from the well, no utilities and the young rejecting such a future. Olivia, an ex-pat with dual UK/Italian citizenship, bought this stone built farm complex some twenty years ago, by which time it was a wreck with dense scrub and weeds colonising terraces where olives, wheat, apples and other fruit once grew. Having totally renovated and installed all mod cons as well as putting in a swimming pool on the nearest terrace she moved to a more convenient location at the bottom of the hill and let out the villa. How dense the woods are here in the foothills below Monte Castiglione. There is a fascinating mixture of northern European trees (Oak, ash, elder, chestnut etc) cheek by jowl with southern European natives (acacia, mimosa, olives, almonds etc). In autumn, we were told, the red and yellow canopy shelters a treasure house of funghi which provide a mainstay of regional gastronomic dishes. Clearly too the steep inclines and dense wooded cover provide shelter for boar, deer and other animal and bird life while the valley bottoms are intensely farmed and closely irrigated for a variety of arable crops, from corn to sunflowers. The Tiber valley remains a centre for tobacco growing and we see tall small tractors harvesting the big leaves in the brown clay fields. Have a soft spot for the three wheeled motor bike trucks I first saw in great numbers around the countryside when last in Italy hitch hiking as a student back in 1970. They are a rarer sight today so finding a vintage scale model in a gift shop cheered me greatly and made for a prized souvenir. Here’s an original we saw at a restaurant in the hills above Arezzo, still in use carrying wood for the ovens, stoves and just about everything else.

Mushrooms

The recent wet & dry spell, combined with our friends and neighbours’ muckspreading of boggy pasture, has resulted in a glut of field mushrooms. Mrs Southridge & Kim went a-gathering one morning and divied up what they managed to forage. I made brunch with some of our bounty then a mushroom soup with the rest. Beautiful dark earthy tang lightened with cream after slow cooking. Saved some for the freezer to allow us another taste of summer at years end. Made first juice of the season, encouraged by the good early crop but the apples are still dry, lacking juice, so I added some sugar to compensate. In another month, when the pips are dark & hard, ready for the drop, that won’t be an issue.

Garden

On the temperature scale this part of the UK has consistently been on the cooler fresher edge of summer. Warm enough but rarely too much to bear. Recent rainfall has turned the browns back to greens across our upland landscape. Still not enough for many farmers who have had to resort to feeding stock with this year’s recently cut silage and hay. But for us gardeners it seems to have generally brought more cheers than tears. Grey water from baths and showers have been essential, as mentioned before, in getting through the mini-drought. Our happy acre has benefited from early spring’s removal of straggly older bushes and replacement with a range of annuals and perennials bought at local nurseries and NGS sales. The pond planting has thrived; cordoned apples likewise while our new rockery has been worth the misadventure of the head gardener’s fractured ankles! Climbing rose and clematis are now filling the void left by the extraction of the conifer that once dominated that space. One is a Clematis Montana. Our resident pied wagtails nested in its tangled leafy mass, but their little late brood has sadly failed. The swallows by contrast are now multiplied from two to four, regularly sweeping the skies hereabouts, and sometimes meeting up over the field with other families. (Planning their autumn flight back to Africa we wonder?). Both adult hedgehog and fox have triggered the yard security lights on separate nights. Delighted to have beautiful peacock and small tortoise butterflies feasting on the flowers, along with many hoverflies and bees. Small white butterflies have most recently dominated by way of numbers, so pleased that the newly acquired ‘poppadomes’ are in place to keep them off the brassicas in their raised beds. We’ve had another good blackcurrant crop for jams and juice while for the first time this year we make cassis and store it in a big glass jar. The damsons are netted, in a basic wrap around way, although blackbird activity is down on last year when they stripped the entire ripened crop from both bushes. Catch sight of the inconspicuous dunnocks going about their earth bound business, hopping in and out of the foliage, and wonder where they have so secretly nested. The retired builder who does odd jobs for us, when repairing the roof recently, discovered an old nest (probably a sparrow’s) where slipped slates had allowed egress under the gable end.