Into Autumn

Or more like, the last of Summer. In the sunny still days between the more frequent grey, wet ones we generate productive time in the garden. Our apples – James Grieve, Katy, Discovery – do best out front. Here they are warmed by the sun on that south facing side, sheltered by the road wall and grow as espaliers over heat retentive sandstone. We can rely on a good crop each year with most going to juicing and consumption in the here and now. A good job when you consider how active the resident blackbirds are in pecking and picking their way through the ripening fruit from handy perches, as the picture shows. What they don’t consume wasps, mice, voles and slugs etc will.

I’m convinced we’ve had such a good year for butterflies (and insect life generally) not just because of favourable weather but because the forest of nettles and thistles in the field round our dumping ground/bonfire has proved the ideal nursery for so many of them, especially peacocks and tortoiseshells. It’s always lovely at this time of year to see so many feasting, as here on the profuse masses of Michaelmas daisies in the bank border.

One of this summer’s pet projects has been to create a different kind of pond to the current one, and put it in another part of the garden. To that end I’ve turned a galvanized metal cattle watering trough into a container pond in the kitchen garden and set it in the lea of the stone wall that marks our western boundary, between the new greenhouse and a raised bed. There was a fern already in situ at the wallfoot so have neighboured it with a few more unusual varieties in pots. Re-positioned, and confined to pots, hostas and apple mint which had outgrown their respective berths in the rockery; adding them to the variegated green cohort around the tank. Reluctant to introduce tiny floating millweed to this new watery haven I thoroughly washed the plants taken from the original pond (hornwort, brooklime, scirpus, creeping jenny etc) and added some new ones (iris, lily, water-forget-me-not etc). Need to keep an eye so it does not overflow after heavy rain and also that access is possible for newts toads and frogs as some of the aqua plants are on stands near the surface with overhanging foliage….May need to introduce a small ramp or similar to be sure.

Apparently you can only get plastic baler twine these days. So when a friend who had attended the farm sale of another friend who was retiring saw this old style natural product amongst the host of articles she picked it up for Kim, who loves and appreciates such telling things. It will no doubt appear, in whole or part, in one or more of her future compositions. I can’t help but ponder that biodegradable material like this should be making a comeback in an age which now values all things sustainable and recyclable.

Border Shepherds

Last weekend I went down with a cold so missed accompanying Kim to one of our favourite local agricultural shows. Our river rises on the watershed between Northumberland and the Scottish Border. The upper valley at Falstone has proudly hosted its annual shepherds show since 1885. I asked Kim to write a few lines about her experience of the event…

Every year in late August sees the Falstone Border Shepherds Show. Up the North Tyne Valley, along a single track, and into a small sheltered field outside the pretty village not far from Kielder Water, I am reminded of farming days with some nostalgia. Wearing my judge’s badge and wandering past the penned sheep, the steady weathered shepherds leaning over stock, the border collies drifting through to sheepdog trials, the smell of wet grass drying in a surprising day of heat, I head towards the industrial tent to help in the looking over of children’s submissions to the art classes.

Thank goodness the partner is an ex teacher and knows much about childrens’ handwriting stages, while I find it difficult to decide between free and funny watercolours, collaged vegetable faces, and interpretations of northern dark skies on flower pots (though we all agree on the special prize going to a starry sparkly one of these).

I meet many old friends, catch up with news, and happily spend too long marveling at prize vegetables, gardens on a plate, and the beautifully carved shepherds’ sticks. This is a simple uncommercial show, meant for gathering at the end of summer, and I love it. Back home I quietly hang my little badge up at home and smile.

Georgian Interlude

Pockerley Old House

A day of time travelling with grandchildren 9 and 6 years of age, proved a delight for all concerned one day last week. Beamish in Co.Durham has been ‘The Living Museum of the North’ since its foundation in 1970 and now covers some 350 acres. To me it represents all that’s best about the region’s culture; by the people, for the people and of the people. Worth the wait to get in once we’d parked up. A number of visits are required to get any feel for the whole. Today we started off with the 1900’s pit village reassembled on site – church, school, silver band hall, cottages with gardens etc. For me though the latter part of our visit was the most poignant and atmospheric…a time where the seemingly unchanging agricultural world really did start to give way to the Industrial. The 1820’s late Georgian period saw great social, political and economical changes. What they’ve managed to create at the Pockerley site beautifully captures a world where intense manual labour with horse and oxen was giving way to a multitude of iron engines powered by coal and steam.

Pockerley New House

Comfortably situated atop a small hill, Pockerley New House was built in the early 1700’s and sits next to (but is not physically connected with) the Old House next door, which dates from the 1440’s and was originally a pele or bastle in the age of Anglo-Scottish raiding. Along with the extensive farm outbuildings they are the only original buildings on the Beamish estate. The Pockerley was still the centre of a tenant farming operation right up until 1990. The delightful stepped front garden is on three levels – flower & herb, vegetable & orchard – giving way to a patchwork of small fields under ‘rig (ridge) & furrow’ cultivation alongside traditional meadows, partitioned by split oak or thorn hedge and hazel hurdles.

The old house is dark and cool. As a former defensive structure it has massive thick walls, small windows, a cheese press, worn flag floors, large undercroft. The new hall by contrast oozes a modest prosperity. Wonderful lived in feel, mix of best (carpeted parlour) and everyday (large flagged kitchen & entranceway) settles and rag rugs, artifacts and decorations, worn & warm, coal fired kitchen range, lots of small interconnecting rooms, creaking narrow stairs, simple and sufficient…Feels as if the inhabitants had just stepped out and were to be expected home any moment.

Pockerley New House Garden & Orchard looking towards the Waggonway & Joe the Quilter’s Cottage

I imagine that stout political reformer and countryside advocate William Cobbett calling by for lively state of the nation conversation with the tenant farmer which we would later read about in one of his ‘Rural Rides’. His contemporary Thomas Bewick was born and grew up in a similar yeoman farmhouse by the banks of the Tyne at Cherryburn. The great naturalist and printmaker would have been equally at home in such a setting, which he might have come by on one of his many long walks about the north-east. Beamish has a great advantage over the National Trust and country house owners who open their properties to the public in making nearly everything they have on site is as ‘hands on’ and experiential as it can be. The atmosphere created is as charged and realistic as the steam engine we see & hear slicing its determined course through the otherwise peaceful pastoral scene. In contemporary art terms: more of a Turner landscape than Constable is animated before our eyes.

The Pockerley Waggonway allows non stop comings and goings of a prototype mine locomotive, ‘The Steam Elephant’, which has benn reconstructed on site from an original oil painting of 1815. It tears through the rural topography at a steady 5mph, returning at end of day to the 1825 engine shed it shares with a replica of Stephenson’s famous ‘Locomotion No 1’. We queue patiently to ride the rails, peering from the open carriageway at the young volunteer engineers, blackened like medieval imps, taking the revolutionary grease black creature through its steaming piston pushing paces….Only a short run there and back but worth every moment!

We finished today’s ventures into the 1820’s with a visit to the nearby recently opened Joe the Quilter’s Cottage. (The first building to be complete in their £11million lottery funded ‘Remaking Beamish’ project). Joe Hedley, a cottage industry quilt maker whose work was known and admired beyond his native north-east was brutally murdered at home on or about 3rd January 1826. The crime was never solved, despite the public outcry and reward offered by the crown. Joe’s original humble cottage just down the road from us at Warden, by the confluence of the north & south Tyne rivers, was demolished in 1872. But those clever people at Beamish, together with community volunteers, working from an original print of the place and official post murder inventory managed to identify its site and remove the original flagstone floor. The distinctive local sandstone and oak used in building walls and roof frame along with tons of heather for thatching were all sourced in Northumberland. Beamish’s blacksmiths made door locks, hinges and candlesticks. The broadcloth quilts old Joe produced at home were of the highest quality (example pictured) and much sought after by the gentry. Living alone in such a relatively isolated spot the poor man was clearly a vulnerable target for those intent on robbery with extreme violence.

Broads

For someone hefted to the hills it’s a rare treat to set foot in the relative flat lands of Norfolk. But for two days this week I was enhanced by water and big skies; from living in a lighthouse to cruising in a pleasure boat on the Broads. A lovely few days holiday with the extended family opened my eyes to the quiet delights of coast and inland waterways.

The promise of 125 miles of navigable lock free rivers allows most of us untested travellers to confidently set sail on inland waters during the easy months of summer. We hired our motor cruiser for the day, complete with sink, fridge, toilet & overhead retractable covers. Embarking from the boatyards at Potter Heigham we soon joined the sedate River Bure which has been fully navigable since 1685. In the old days the seven rivers that make up the Broads had locks in strategic places and the extensive waterborne trade on wherries and skiffs made this a prosperous rural area. The coming of the railways and better roads, combined with a disasterous flood in 1912 all helped put an end to this phase of industry. Sail boats still ply the waters but now purely for pleasure. Engine gives way to sail on the water road and in pausing our progress we witnessed them skillfully tacking cross the current, bank to bank, to catch the wind. Was put in mind of all those genre paintings of sails under huge skies with complex lighting effects skillfully captured in oil or water colours.

Our principal destination, where we came ashore, was Ranworth Staithes. Once a centre for maltings and brewing and now a popular port of call for boaters and boats of all descriptions. After a convivial lunch in the pub we walked up to the village church of St Helen on the heave of land which passes for a peak in these parts. My only regret on leaving was not taking the opportunity to climb its tall tower via ancient steps and ladders to take in the view it would offer of the wider wetlands. Never mind. Just viewing close up the outstanding 15th century rood screen and wood panel paintings of saints was reward enough. How this luminous and exquisite example of late medieval art survived the reformation is a miracle in itself.

One of the reasons I chose not to delay our party in ascending the open door to belfry and roof was that I was sleeping for two nights at the top of the lighthouse the family had rented for the week at Winterton by the Sea, so already had my happy fill of heights and views. Lovingly restored by architect wife and publicist husband, this was their idylic country retreat from London along with their two children. A host of magazines featured the building and its location. My bedtime eyrie was 75 steps up. The last two floors being pitched very steeply, requiring all who passed to practice backward descent. The 360 degree view from this ultimate mezzanine, complete with sunken mattress and arty lamps, provided a view to another lighthouse northwards and the suburbs of Great Yarmouth southwards. East, an expanse of grey north sea stretched to the horizon beyond marram grassed dunes (a protected S.S.S.I.) A seemingly endless strip of sandy beach gave way steeply to crashing waves. Further down the coast a line of wind turbines pointed in the direction of Holland. At one point lightning flashes told us of storms over that country. The next night, gathered in our circular viewing platform from 10 – 10.10 pm, we were treated to a firework display over Great Yarmouth. To the west golden stubble cut cornfields, mature trees in hedges, churches, hints of the inland water world of the Broads beyond.

Fascinated to discover the history of evolution that produced these intensively plied rural waterways. Rich religious houses, like Saint Benet’s abbey, whose ruins we passed on the River Bure, were behind exploitation of the land they owned or rented and which consequently brought the Broads we know today into being. Their extensive turbary activity in the middle ages resulted in the removal of some 900 million cubic feet of peat around the seven rivers of the sub region. Combined with gradually rising sea levels this resulted in flooding of the low lying river valleys, leaving inland promontaries in between. All this further further accelerated water borne import/export of agricultural produce, coal, bricks, tiles, timber etc to towns even further inland and increased the importance of Norwich as the regional centre. St Benet’s strikes the eye with its hulk of an 18th century brick windmill dominating the remains of its medieval stone gatehouse.

Masses of masking reeds, isolated ancient oaks, woods of water loving willows and alder masking silted wharves and inlets…I think of the ghost story I will be reading this autumn on tour in Northumberland & Dumfries; ‘Three Miles Up’ by Elizabeth Jane Howard (1951). Inspired by living on a canal longboat just after WW2 and her role in founding the Inland Waterways Association, her beguiling tale really is the most disturbing of fictions, combining on board love triangle with exploration of unchartered waterways. Quite brilliant and chilling. Having this chance to be on the water has given me experience of a dream like setting to play with in my head and project into the reading.

Poppies Plus

One benefit of the County Council upgrading our C Road was that they appear to have re-seeded the verges with wildflower and grass mix. Seeing patches of poppies and harebells at the passing places is a joy. I’m also convinced that poppies are becoming a common sight in cornfields again in recent years, being tolerated or encouraged where once they would have been chemically eliminated. The raising of consciousness about the dead of World War One and the symbolism of this distinctive flower has elevated it from from common weed to timely icon. And that must be a good thing.

Old friend and Demi-paradise associate Richard Sails was our guest last week; a first in arriving on foot from the south bearing a heavy rucksack. He is walking from Land’s End to John’o’Groats and we would be his last stop in England before crossing the border into Scotland. Richard was game enough to play my guerrilla version of croquet round the lawns and do a spot of shooting tin cans off the gateposts with my old BSA Meteor air rifle. He also made himself very useful undertaking a meticulous job prepping the blackcurrants from the garden which I then made into jam. Richard has passed through some of the best of English countryside this summer and his interest in flora and fauna has grown with it. A real pleasure to host and support such a genial, resourceful and determined man on his epic trek. (Richard’s progress can be followed on Facebook)

A small herd of Southridge’s stabilisers has been let loose on cornerhouse field. Apparently there’s danger in letting cattle graze too early on land where hay or silage has been cut and fresh lush pasture pushes through. They can get a type of pneumonia commonly called ‘fog fever’ and the grass everywhere, in field and garden, is profuse in growing during these damp warm days. The bullocks are wary but curious so I converse with them over the wall to gain trust and some come in close enough to lick my hand. I do a spot of pruning and later feed them branches of alder, willow and ash which they curl their tongues around to deftly strip the branches of fresh leaves.

Delighted to discover that pipits (tree or meadow) are most definitely back. There’s a lovely cone of a small nest in the fork of a birch tree in the copse that I’d like to think was to do with them but the book tell me both species nest on or near the ground, so who knows? It’s been a great season for insects in general and butterflies in particular. Lots of tortoiseshell, peacock, red admiral and veined whites aflutter round the garden but have also logged ringlet and painted lady. The latter has been present in great numbers this year apparently, having moved up from North Africa through Europe and across the channel into all parts of the country.

High Summer

Both Kim & I resolve to sit quietly and enjoy the garden without feeling compelled to do anything therein. Reading helps in my case (Checking out potential ghost stories for future touring, so it’s still work related. Oh dear.) Ears gradually open to the natural world around us. Standoffish blackbirds skirting the boundaries with warning cries. They are sampling the blackcurrants (That prompts me to gather the fruit today for jam making) The parent birds seen with their beaks full of worms and insects so assume their brood in whole or part have safely fledged. (There was no sign of eggshells under the empty nest discovered in the spinney wall (pictured) so I wondered what had passed). Our pair of resident pied wagtails quarter gravel and grass bobbing up and down as they go and I saw one the other day remorselessly bash a moth in its beak until it ceased to flutter. Their nest is hidden in the deep folds of the prolific Clematis Montana on the west end corner of the house. The swallow family now sometimes skate the skies in company with others. Planning migration in a month or so I wonder?

Neighbours sheep are all shorn and the handful of tups in our field spend a lot of time sleeping so you forget they are there beyond the fierce chomping of eating or creaking of gate as they rub their itches bare. Other distant flocks raise occasional bleats. One day a Hercules transport plane wheeled and turned at the forest’s edge with more agility than you might expect of such a large military craft and with only a whisper of engine noise; quite ghostly, flying low over the land in the exercise of radar evasion before gliding out of sight. Later we do not see, but clearly hear, tawny owls calling one to the other, very close by. One day a male sparrowhawk flew by, just inches off the ground, gone in an instant.

The studio border is a virtual firework display of colour and texture. The white & grey livery of Lychnis, lime green of Nicotiana, the floating finery of yellow Ridolfia intertwined with white Ammi Majus; Crocosmia Lucifer an erupting volcano, Eryngium and Alium with their brilliant spikey heads; showy delights of purple Phlox; Echinops and Leucanthemum too, with Sanguisorba about to flower…The contrasting, competing, coasting forms at their most fabulous. The presence of Ragwort, a beggar amid the beauties, does not distract. Quite the opposite. Insects are everywhere; from harvestman, winged beetles and flying ants to all manner of bees, wasps and hoverflies feasting on the flowers.

Our much cherished new greenhouse has courgettes and cucumbers on ground level with shelves presenting a riot of flowering tomatoes. A sight never seen here before, so very exciting. Have to make sure we are not away on holiday when all the fruits start to arrive, probably all at once!

City Country

St. Dunstan’s -in-the-East with the ‘Walkie-Talkie’ building in the background

This family visit to London centered on an all day excursion to the original settlement. The famous square mile since deregulation in the 1980’s has since sprouted a gaggle of ‘iconic’ office buildings, each vying with the other to dominate and define the skyline. Threading between these glass and concrete monoliths are narrow ancient thoroughfares which give clues that help understand the city’s development as a global hub of finance and commerce.

We immersed ourselves in the well curated foundation story at the Museum of London. Lots of fascinating scale models recreating Londinium, and we finished with a look down at a fragment of city wall from that era still surviving, now defining a boundary of open space at the edge of the post war Barbican residential development. After lunch we made our way south along the course of the former Walbrook river – now a drainage tunnel beneath our feet – to its junction with Lower Thames Street. In following the wide highway east we diverted up little cobbled lanes, free of traffic, for a nose about. Discovered a fine Georgian vestry, now a private business address, with a flower filled formal garden bordered by mature plane trees hanging over its iron railings and brick walls. The three ancient city parish churches we came across provided respite, quiet reflective havens in the canyons of Mammon. Most poignant and blissfully redemptive was St Dunstan’s-in-the-East. Of Saxon foundation, built by St Dunstan in 950 AD, destroyed in the great fire of 1666 and rebuilt again as a Wren church. Today only the impressive tower from the last reincarnation of 1697 remains. Badly damaged by enemy bombing in the blitz it was formally re-dedicated as a garden and open space in 1967. Cool, calm and restorative; children playing, people sunbathing or sitting on the grass, in quiet conversation, picnicking, playing guitar, reading…

Later we double backed at the Tower of London, becoming part of the steady flow of visitors and office workers on the Thames Pathway. Stopped at one point to enjoy wide views across the sunlit river with its crisscrossing multi-decked boats full of tourists and commuters riding the high tide. The seats we sat on were comfortable wraparound wooden ones and the planting scheme behind us a softly verdant linear companion to a wide elevated section of walkway zig-zagging between institutional buildings.


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.