Hydrangea Danger

My trips to London these days are inevitably more about leisure than business. For me that’s a bonus of quality time with the members of the family that live there. I’m happy to be in their company witnessing the urban environment slowly changing for the better. Much of this of course is due to increased awareness of climate change and a new wave of urban community activism that it has fostered. Such things help people cope with the stresses and strains of city life. In South London for instance, my cousin Quetta and like minded souls in the Forest Hill Society (FHS) have been engaged in putting a bit of the forest back on the hill. Centrepiece of their ongoing environmental improvement campaign is the railway station, through which thousands of commuters pass each day. It stands on a twisting elbow of the traffic chocked South Circular Road. Sadly the dignified Victorian station was demolished and rebuilt in the wake of WW2. it presents today as a soulless set of bare utilitarian platforms defined by boundaries of high spiked railings. Gradually its harsh metallic outlines and public furniture have been softened and enhanced by the green fingered FHS volunteers. The set back mini garden they created next the waiting room on platform one has bushes, an apple tree and shrubs that trail over the open section of the bleak brick lined underpass beneath. Back on the platforms purple petunias and orange marigolds in tubs under station signs mirror the corporate colours of Transport for London (TfL). Outside the ticket office hanging baskets add a welcome to the busy scene while the mature trees in the cramped concourse car park have been under planted with a range of seasonal bulbs. People still stub their fags out in the tubs and beds they take for ash trays, drop litter right next to the litter bin and even steal herbs and other plants, but nothing quite matches occasional outbreaks of officially generated vandalism. A couple of weeks ago, Quetta tells me, a visiting TfL official had a hydrangea in full flower in the little platform garden ruthlessly cut back. The reason? Nefarious human activity could be screened by such luxuriant growth. I was glad to see the hacked hydrangea sprouting new shoots. Like the determined foot soldiers of the FHS it remained bowed but unbeaten, alive to another day.

Summer Strands

Get out the stepladder to cut the best flower heads from our two big elders in order to make cordial. So enjoy the simple sticky fun of it. We freeze some and use the rest. This year the swallows have nested under the porch, above the wood shed. My office affords a good view of the parents comings and goings to feed the chicks and last Thursday, working at my desk, was rewarded with the sight of the fledglings bursting from confinement to launch themselves onto the wood partitions between wood and coal stores and later to roost on the porch lamp. The air full of excited activity as the parents returned, flapping wildly, to feed the three youngsters. Within days flying school was in full flight with the single power cable from house to garage their landing line and family mess.

At the pond red damselflies team up. The male standing sentinel on the neck of the female who bends her abdomen to oviposit her eggs on the lily leaf edges. I count three pairs at one time. Spot the odd dragon fly larva in the water, although the number seems down on last year. Still no sign of the newts. I get close up to one of the two adult frogs I know to be inhabiting the pond to take this photo.

Our neighbours are busy cutting, woofling (turning) and baling their hay. The large round bales lying askew all over the fresh yellow fields strike me as where art and agriculture meet. It’s a satisfying sight to see. Most of the sheep are finally shorn. There is muckspreading on the new cut fields once the bales have been taken off to barns. Sheep and their fat lambs about their endless grazing, suckler cattle herds with calves wade through lush green pastures in between.

Our domestic use of dried grasses is an infinitely more modest affair. I strew barley straw between strawberry plants ready to receive and cushion the ripening fruit. Soon we must net the raised beds to stop birds and mice getting too much of the crop. Returning to water I discover Pip our old cat gratefully snoozing on the improved bedding I’ve kindly provided her with!

Kim & I take a casual walk up the river from our main village here in the valley. Lovely old woods and flat pasture boundaries. We meet no-one once past the elegant late Georgian road bridge. Out of the oak trees blackcaps surprise us with their loud and confident singing. Further on maple keys present with a curious bright pink and cobwebs encase shrubs. Sand martins swoop over a wide bend of quiet water. A south facing steep riverbank full of meadow flowers; hawk weed, salad burnet, birds foot trefoil, spent pods of yellow rattle and many others. In the warm shallows shoals of agile trout fry move as one, forming scattering and reforming. This pasture a small part part of the 1,000 acre tenanted hill farm Kim & her family worked for 20 years and she had set a part of one of her stories, ‘One Summer Day’, at this idyllic spot.

Dyfi

The north of England/west Wales trek is a long one but it offers tempting diversions and when traversed over decades, as in my case, you get to witness key developments and social change. Two such positive and welcoming projects can be visited within a short distance of each other…

It must have been around five years ago that the old service station on the A487 north of Aberystwyth in the village of Tre’r-ddol closed and was taken into community ownership. The locals made such a success of the old premises, proving their case, that a successful funding bid secured a brand new cheerful eco-building – christened ‘Cletwr’ – to house the cafe, shop, facilities and meeting room. Locally sourced food, art & craft work, Welsh & English language publications all feature. The forecourt says ‘welcome’ in any language with a wealth of beautifully blended floral beds and shrubs. The volunteer teams here should be proud of their achievement. A tribute to their vision, hard work and co-ordination. Encouragement for other rural communities to bring their community facilities into the 21st century.

Pushing on north towards Machynlleth the banner sign for the Dyfi Osprey Project appears like the great raptor itself; in vision for a wide winged swooping moment then gone. I’ve been wanting to stop here for a while so on this unhurried sojourn home I did…

What a wonderful place! 15 years ago Montgomeryshire Wildlife Trust (MWT) bought and started the process of clearing some 40 acres of commercial spruce plantation. To help they drafted in a herd of water buffalo and replanted with native alder, birch, willow and hazel alongside wet scrub plants like bog myrtle and swathes of reed (now more than head height). I diverted from the fully accessible wooden boardwalk to check out the hides and read information boards. Glimpses of ragged robin, brooklime and orchids; caterpillars crawling and lizards basking on the slate like edge boarding. The meandering walkway brought me after a third of a mile to the towering timber edifice of the 360 observatory. Here I enjoyed a mesmerising close up view through the centre’s mounted telescope of the nesting osprey parents and brace of chicks on their platform nest of sticks edging the tidal Dyfi estuary. A century ago these magnificent fish eating birds were hunted to virtual extinction in the UK but today they are beginning to thrive – thanks to sites like this and those at Rutland Water, Dumfries & Galloway, Bassenthwaite Lake and Kielder Water. Ospreys may be the star name on the bill to pull the punters but also in the huge cast are otters, reed warblers & white fronted geese, darters & dragonflies, toads and frogs and many other native and migrant creatures. Both Cletwr and Cors Dyfi are great examples of what can be done at a grass roots level where there’s sufficient will to make change happen.

Pembrokeshire Trail

‘Little England beyond Wales’ this part of Wales to me is my beloved west country by other means. Geographically this deeply rural land sits in a parallel place and the light is blessed by its peninsular positioning. Britain’s only coastal national park and the long distance path is rated one of the best long distance walking trails in the world. I’ve been visiting since 1985 & know certain spots well, while others remain a mystery. Had just been to see eldest son Tom at his home outside Pembroke Dock and was driving back with youngest son Patrick to the old holiday house we share with friends on the rugged north coast on the parrog at Newport. With time to spare on this midsummer Friday we were up for a bit of diverting, some creative idling, rather than just pushing on to our ultimate destination.

Blackpool Mill was erected in 1813 on the banks of the River Eastern Cleddau. It ceased commercial operation in the 1950’s. The multi-story Grade II* building is situated at the top of the river’s tidal reach, lost in a thickly wooded valley. I remember visiting years back when the mill was open as an historic attraction with a cafe; the 19th century flour processing equipment and machinery still in place. Standing on the late Georgian bridge which arches the river, we view the mill’s high walls grimy and tearful sad, perimeters secured by metal fencing. In 2017 the local leisure park – Bluestone – proposed a £2.5 restoration that would give employment to 60 people. It envisaged a working ‘Victorian themed’ attraction plus a narrow gauge railway with station. The Pembrokeshire Coast National Park turned the plans down but invited a revised application more suited to the quiet rural location…We will have to return in a few years to see what, if anything, has happened.

The southern part of Pemrokeshire was settled and secured by Norman Marcher lords and this verdant country also proved a wealth creating prize for the church throughout the medieval period. The Bishops of St David’s were mighty powerful landowners who lived in grand style. I particularly love the remains of their fine palace next St David’s cathedral. They also had a Summer palace near Pembroke, now a charming ruin, quiet and peaceful. What surprised me to learn on this visit was that the bishop also had castles dotted around their west Wales fiefdom. We took a wrong turning at Bethesda but it was the right outcome as we twisted and turned along narrow lanes and over river bridges to emerge into the village of Llawdaren. We parked and discovered the impressive ruins of a castle built by Bishop Adam de Houghton in the 13th Century and abandoned at the Tudor reformation in the 16th. Robbed of stone for house building it remains a shell within the dry moat. CADW are the custodians and we arrived after closing but it mattered not. There was compelling dignity and distinctiveness in its arrested decay.

Once place everyone returns to at some time or other in north Pembrokeshire tends to be Pentre Ifan. A distinctive cluster of standing stones with a capstone it reminds me of a coffin with bearers. And indeed its purpose was funerial. Dating from 3,500 years ago, this burial chamber was enclosed within a long vanished burial mound of earth and stones. The structure was erected to hold the remains of some great personage and commands a wonderful view out over Newport Bay. I always seem to get lost finding the actual site in the skein of lanes hereabouts but I shan’t next time! Simply having time in the presence of such a harmonious structure, timeless in essence & perfect in balance, is balm for the soul. Being here at the midsummer solstice somehow made it even more so.

June Garden

Lots of trips away recently to far flung parts of the country. All of them full of interest and highly enjoyable. Nothing beats coming home though and given that Summer’s lease hath all too short a stay then we want to be here to enjoy it. Having two of us in residence since my move from Lancashire in 2017 mean we can spend more time caring for and expanding on what can be done within the purlieu of our happy acre of garden.

The field wall curves away westward along the ridge and its arc is the synchronicity of returning swallows on the wing. They grace the air around us each year and this season the parents have built their nest atop the beam on the house wall which sustains the long back porch, in the far section of which is our wood store. They are squeeky nervy of human presence so luckily trips to get wood and coal for the burner are minimal at this time of year. Usually the birds take up residence in the railway hut but for whatever reason they are ringing the changes this time around. Other residents nesting – though I’ve not spotted where yet – are dunnock, pied wagtail and blackbird. Nothing compares to the latter cock bird, the most melodious of songsmiths, and hearing him call from his high perch of a warm windless evening is pure delight.

In the pond (now in its third full year) the hierarchy has changed again. Bright yellow insurgent monkey flower predominates where last summer the surface hugging brooklime with its bright tiny flowers was top spreader. I love the miniature iris recently acquired and now in bloom. The delicate water crow’s foot too whose single flowers have debuted as little white stars hovering delicately over the deeper water. The miniature lilies have spread, which is a joy, and the water hawthorn still hangs on, despite being the food plant of many emergent water snails. The appearance of millweed is not welcome, but I’ll keep it in check. As I have with dropwort, monkeyflower and forget me not at the shallow end, scooping it out of the pebbles to allow birds and small mammals access. Frogs are at least two in number and large. I hope they have not driven out the palmate newt population, although I fear they might have. The last adult spotted was on June 1st. The oxygenating weeds are now well established so the newts might be as safe and secure as they can living amidst the tangle of hornwort and other green weeds which cool the still water and keep it fresh. No sign at all this year of the great crested newts we had last season so they may have abandoned us for less contested dwellings somewhere else in the area.

The other night we were delighted to catch sight of our semi-resident hedgehog. A large specimen, snortling around on the porch. Hopefully it’s the same creature who was, earlier this year, hibernating in leaves on the big circular bank and later in the railway hut in the mass of bags, wire, sacks and other gear in store. The cat gets older and thinner, more fussy in her eating habits so uneaten wet food is often put out on the deck when we retire of an evening. It’s always gone by the morning and the hog is the most obvious of night time visitors with a penchant for cat food.

Weald & Downland

Kim on an intensive printmaking course at West Dean College near Chichester and me along for the train ride. West Dean is the former home of Edward James (1907 – 1984), the patron of surrealism in England and general lover of the arts. The estate, now a trust, retains hundreds of acres of prime farmland and the house, now West Dean College, where we are staying, is a very impressive late Georgian mansion. It’s currently enmeshed in scaffolding, getting a much needed new roof. The 100 acres of gardens and woodlands that stretch away all around us up to the South Downs are top quality and suitably awe inspiring. It’s peaceful, friendly and well run place to both relax and get truly creative. When Kim toils I set out to discover what this area of West Sussex has to offer….

On Monday I follow the main road a mile to the next village of Singleton. It’s a wee bit hairy as the pavement is half overgrown and neglected by the county council whose job it is to maintain it, and the A road traffic zips by at M way speeds. Not much chance of encouraging walking or cycling around here which is a pity because it would help bring two wonderful attractions together. I hope one day there will be a green alternative way linking West Dean Gardens with the Weald and Downland Living Museum that I’ve come to visit as the rain begins to fall…

The latter started life in 1970 as an environmental and conservation emergency, led by Dr J A Armstrong, a refuge for badly neglected or endangered historic buildings that could safely be dismantled and re-assembled here. It was Edward James, that great philanthropist, who gifted them the land, some 40 acres, part of the estate. There are some 50 buildings currently on the site. Big emphasis on education (Tudor kitchen cooking, study rooms, family spaces, indoor and outdoor creative play areas) while the making, mending, storage conservation takes place mainly in an amazing looking state of the art building using natural materials called the Downland Gridshell, but which I will call the very hungry caterpillar, as it reminds me of the picture book creature.

It’s a bit of a magical place, even on a grey and thoroughly wet day like this, taking one on a gentle dive through the centuries to reveal the continuity of the connected. The crafts, skills, occupations and needs of the people of these southern counties in village and countryside over a 1,000 year span.

Favourite spots for me included ‘Bayleaf Farmhouse’ from Chiddingstone in Kent – a prosperous late medieval hall house with its through passage & upstairs projecting privy, buttery, pantry, solar etc. The central plain hall with open windows imply but effectively furnished with reproduction pieces from the Tudor period, including hangings & triangular chairs, round a central fire pit. Also loved the watermill which was once in operation at Lurgashall in Sussex from the 17th – 20th century. The cast iron overshot wheel is fed from the site’s feature lake by the entrance. Seeing and hearing the resulting trundling transmission in wood and iron was happily mesmeric. Only wish I could have brought the flour being ground before my eyes. Attractively priced and packaged it was too. But the thought of getting anything as bulky and heavy in our bags for the train and long journey home stopped me going there.

And of course, the gardens. Five of them from different periods serving the various needs of different classes. Lots of information on herbs and their uses Wood is everywhere; coppiced from the site’s woods, used in fencing, hurdles, gates, firewood etc; fruit trees and many varieties of vegetables too. Shire horses, stabled on site, do the essential tasks they were bred for, pulling carts and hauling timber while oxen are also kept for ploughing; Southdown sheep busy grazing hedges in their small in-bye field while a flock of fine looking chickens – Sussex Whites – were pecking by the stables.

With my site specific drama hat on I fantasise about the possibilities for promenade education packages and summer evening entertainment here. Professional actors interacting not just with kids or public but with the volunteer re-enactors who work here. I see William Cobbett fact gathering on his ‘Rural Rides’ or Edward Thomas as the poet in the making observing life for his countryside books; The free spirit of Celia Fynes on her intrepid journeying; Daniel Defoe passing through as merchant/spy/reporter; Rudyard Kipling or H.V.Morton in their respective search for rural England…and so on. Would there be possibilities of adapting a Hardy novel like ‘The Woodlanders’ or ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’ I wonder. R L Stevenson’s thrilling medieval tale ‘The Black Arrow’ would be just perfect. Not to mention Shakespeare of course: ‘Winter’s Tale’ or ‘As You Like It’ spring immediately to mind….Ah, if only I was younger and lived nearby!

Sheep & Cows

The clutch of texel tups on our field were taken off in May. They’d been scratching vigorously and moulting freely of late. Some I thought looking more dead than alive in repose. Note to self; must gather droppings and fleece pieces to add to the store building in our new wood planked open top compost boxes. they look great and fitted together neatly. Standing near the new greenhouse all looks right with our little gardening world…Reality bites back as I set to clearing apple mint from in the bed by the pond. Never realised its roots were so pervasive or its progress so rapid. Uncovered lost grasses Kim had put in last year, alongside lily of the valley and hostas. Hard at work on hands and knees I slowly become aware of grunts and rustling in the greenery. Look up to see a cow chewing the young willow that grows by the field fence. We’ve not had cattle quartered before and such edible niceties were always out of the reach of sheep.

Stabiliser is a souless name for such good looking and well conformed beasts. They are an artificial commercial construct, bred in America, blending the ideal characteristics of a handful of breeds and franchised out to farmers in this country. Morrisons supermarkets have a contract with the Stabiliser farmers which meets market demand for smaller leaner steaks. Our neighbours have invested, built new housing and got a bull last year to service their heifers. Now the herd is divided in two with the older cattle in with the lambs and ewes in the big pasture across the road while the suckler cows and recent calves are on this side with us. Our four acre field has a trickle of water at its lower end, sufficient to supply a small cohort. A wetter than average May/ June has secured the larger spring that supplies our two properties as well as meeting the demands of the beasts, and cows are thirsty creatures. Bovines chew the sward differently than ovines which evens out the grazing and keeps the land in better heart. Different offer on the dung as well of course…Increasing the chance of mushrooms next year with any luck. I’ve noticed that most evenings each herd converges in adjacent corners of their respective ranges to stare companionably – communicate? – across the width of lane that separates them.

Cows are certainly curious and that can sometimes be intimidating, occasionally dangerous, especially when calves are at heel or a dog is involved, on or off the lead. The other day I met a German hiker at the gate who said she’d had a run in with a suckler herd back along the Pennine Way which had left her very concerned about crossing the field with the herd clustered on the path. I sympathised. A recent walk in Devon had seen us making a wide detour from the field path for the same reason. I walked her through our garden and pasture to the point where she could rejoin the long distance trail, out of any potential harm’s way. She was relieved and I was happy to help her on her way.

David Nash

Our journey back north was broken for a stop over with old friends Penny & Brian in Caerleon, Gwent. They drove us into Cardiff and the national gallery & museum of Wales to catch the current main show: ‘David Nash 200 Seasons at Capel Dewi’ Nash is one of the country’s leading exponents of land art; an Englishman who, for the last 50 years, has lived and worked with his family in a converted chapel at Blaneau Ffestiniog in north Wales.

Fresh from of our holiday home in the wildwood that now covers the remains of mining we were ripe to respond to the wonders in wood produced by this original and influential artist. This retrospective exhibition reflects a wide body of work created in a post industrial slate producing enclave like Blaneau within the wider hinterland of rural Snowdonia. The 73 year old sculptor operates with chainsaw, axe and blowtorch on an large scale, producing outdoor works made from living woods or indoor ones of recycled timbers in geometric variations – cube, sphere and pyramid.

Nash’s most famous works are still both in motion back in north Wales: Wooden Boulder (begun 1978) and Ash Dome (begun 1977). Videos in the exhibition documented their conception, history & development. Wooden Boulder is a crude oak ball the artist cut, fashioned and left by a stream. Over the years rain, wind and flood has moved it by fits and starts from mountainside to ocean and back again to estuary. Ash Dome is a living sculpture in a secret mountain location where ash saplings planted in a circle are cut each year to develop into an intersecting dome. (BBC4 viewers will be familiar with the work as a channel ident).

I particularly liked the conical oak bark sculpture made in co-operation with cork farmers in Portugal…its scale, texture and colouration. There’s a collection of major work here until end of show in September so feel really lucky to have experienced it. It’d be hard to take a walk amongst trees and not be engaged by David Nash’s inspiring take on the form and feel of wood.

Okel Tor Mine

The Count House

Our base for the 10 days we spent near Calstock in a restored and modernised part of Okel Tor Mine. A scheduled ancient monument, in an SSS1 within a UNESCO world Heritage Site…You don’t get more protected than that. Leasaed from the local Harewood estate, the mine operated from the 1840’s – 1880’s and utilising the tidal river Tamar to export its precious output of copper and tin. This complex of shafts & adits, pump house and burners, settling pits and buddles strung out along the steep valley slopes employed some 200 men, women, boys and girls at its peak. But this was a wildly precarious boom/bust economy and eventually the buildings and infrastructure were run down, abandoned, gradually reclaimed and colonised by a wealth of native flora and fauna.

Okel Tor Mine Preserved Ruins

Our intimate quirky accommodation at the original entrance to the works was where the mine captain assayed ore and paid his employees. Next door the former smithy, where tools were made or mended and metalwork fabricated, has likewise been tastefully converted. Morning or evening from our deck here on the Cornish side we surveyed a fine slice of rural Devon – its fields and farms, glasshouse nurseries, woods and marshes, abandoned railway discernible in a linear trace of may and cow parsley…This studied and relaxed intimacy I loved, having been born downriver at Saltash and largely brought up the other side of the hill in front of me. Our peace and tranquility was only be broken by the occasional chatter of unseen canoeists below or Canada geese above descending to nest on the abandoned Victorian brick works chimney rising incongruously out of willow and alder carr on the Devon bank. The mass of oak, rowan, maple at our feet rang with songs of blackcap, blackbird and robin while blossom fell from apple and hawthorn through dappled sunlight…The contrast with the mine’s heyday could not have been starker. Old photographs show the steep slopes completely denuded of any kind of vegetation. We were reminded of the days when arsenic – the equally commercial by-product that filled economic highs and lows of mineral extraction – was worked here. At the parameters of our idyllic private view, upriver at the site of Gawton Mine with its crooked stone chimney poking out of the greenest of forests, a massive bare mound rears up…An arsenic waste tip so deadly nothing will grow on it. Yet there’s a terrible beauty in it. Nature & man’s industry gifts us a permanent art work.

Dartmoor

Black Tor

For me Dartmoor will always be home. More precisely that S.W. corner of it where the high plateau gives way to downland, intake and steep densely wooded valleys. My childhood and adolescence spent walking and cycling the high banked lanes and open moor. Our little gang would go building sone and mud dams in the brook and stock them with bullheads and minnows. Or we’d go tickling trout and trapping elvers. Rope swings and dens in woods, climbing trees and keeping lookout….Later there were trysts with my first serious girlfriend under the watchful eye of her aged and very posh parents who lived in a big modern house on the moor’s edge. As a younger actor I’d be touring the West Country & Cumbria in plays by Dartmoor farmer Jane Beeson inspired by her long experience of upland farming life or playing native sons of the soil in historic recreations at Buckland Abbey and Cotehele for the National Trust’s Young Peoples Theatre Company. Later ‘Dartmoor and its Environs’ would be the subject that won me the semi-final competition of Mastermind in 1991.

Remains of Medieval Tinning works on River Mewy

On this return journey Kim & I only had a small window of opportunity to visit the moor and we wanted a walk that was accessible, circular and packed as much as possible into those few miles. Thanks to Peter Tavy’s excellent guide book ‘Walk Dartmoor’ (pub; Bartholomew) we found one. Parking off the Yelverton – Princetown road we struck off east to Black Tor. A huge logan (rocking) stone, now immobile but still imposing, while it’s twin granite pile boasted a sheer face and an interesting interior rock chimney. We dropped to the infant Mewy (or Meavy) river below and on crossing picked up a double row of granite stumps leading to a small ruined stone circle which in turn led us gently up to Hart Tor and some fine views over this section of the high moor. Down once more, this time to Hart Tor Brook and its eventual confluence with the Mewy at Iron Bridge. On our way we came across the remains of a Bronze Age village and put up cows and their calves, one of many herds turned out by commoners for Summer grazing, and cautiously gave the agitated beasts a wide berth. Skylarks above and butterflies at our feet fluttering over wild bilberries. Otherwise, away from any discernible path, the dried tussocky grass slowed our progress. Surprised to discover that the Iron Bridge was in fact an acquaduct and not a footbridge as I’d supposed when viewed from a distance. The cleverly engineered gated channel bears the contour hugging Devonport Leat with its rushing waters downhill to a final destination in Plymouth some 12 miles away. Another short leat fed off the conjoined Mewy/Hart Tor Brook at this point. Loved jumping back and forth across the combined crossing waterways to take photographs and look for fish and insects. Following the Mewy back upstream to just below where we’d originally crossed it revealed a hidden dell with a deep pool overhung by mountain ash – Black Tor Hole. We could clearly see the remains of its medieval tinning works. Most notably, with lintel still in place, a ruined blowing house where the precious metal was separated from ore and processed before being transported by pony to Tavistock, the nearest stannary town. From here a short steep climb brought us past the family groups of wild ponies descended from those earlier pack animals on to the lonely open road where a stream of hardy lycra light cyclists whizzed by, head down, oblivious to the ancient sites & hidden sights around them.

Devonport Leat