RURAL REFLECTIONS -102
Britain has two breeds of sheep that can be regarded as truly primitive, one found in the far north of the British Isles and the other by the south coast. Both are still in existence as a result of being on land surrounded by water, the North Atlantic and the English Channel respectively And, whilst one area of land is due to the creation of a natural phenomenon, the other is a result of a manmade structure built, ironically, without the sheep's survival in mind. These two primitive breeds came to Britain by different routes, the northern short-tailed from central Asia via Scandinavia and Russia, whilst the long-tailed Celtic is believed to have come from the Near East before travelling through the Mediterranean countries.The long-tailed Celtic breed, whose sheep are tanned faced and horned, reach as far back as the Iron Age. Its forbears once grazed across the heaths and downs of the southeast as well as the countryside of south western England. Sadly, crossbreeding down the centuries led to the breed disappearing from mainland Britain. It was to their fortune, however, that the natural formation of a shoal, in this case a shingle bar that rolled landwards, would guarantee this ancient breed's immunity from surrounding influences. The shingle bar I refer to is Chesil Beach, with the breed becoming more commonly known as Portland Sheep.
has been a royal manor since before the Norman Conquest and a considerable
sheep run for much longer, factors that made the breed unique and famous throughout the kingdom for centuries. Able to
live on the island's sparse pasture, the
breed has a strong constitution that gives
it a strong resistance to disease and
parasites. This is a proud and independent
breed with a keen sense of its
own identity. The sheep demand respect and
are not easily intimidated, resulting in
a blase attitude towards sheepdogs. One other key characteristic of the breed
is its ability to lamb out of season, although unfortunately they barely
average one lamb per ewe.
Even these sheep, however,
are no longer considered pure as over the years they have received
infusions of blood from other breeds, notably the Exmoor Horn.
Today, the breed's nearest descendants are the Dorset and Wiltshire
During the nineteenth century, its pastural ground was gradually eroded by commercial quarrying, leading to the breed eventually disappearing from the island when the last flock was sold in 1913 at Dorchester Market. By 1953 only a few flocks remained in Britain, with Calke Abbey having the largest.
Even these sheep, however, are no longer considered pure as over the years they have received infusions of blood from other breeds, notably the Exmoor Horn. Today, the breed's nearest descendants are the Dorset and Wiltshire Horns.
However, in 1793 the crofters were warned by Sir John Sinclair, the first President of the Board of Agriculture, of their change of emphasis towards profit making. In his view they were no longer concerned for agriculture despite it being 'in every county the first and foremost of the arts'. Furthermore, he cautioned that if ever the manufacture of kelp should fail, it would 'bring certain ruin upon the tenants and their families'. He was to be proved right. By 1832 the price of kelp had collapsed, leaving the islanders facing destitution and at risk of famine. As a result, Traill's grandson, then laird, and his agent came up with a radical plan. Rather than encouraging the inhabitants to emigrate to larger, less populated islands, they proposed the building of a dry-stone dyke,12 miles in length, which would run the island's whole perimeter. It would also be tall enough to exceed any high tide and keep the sheep away from the island's cultivatable land. Only ewes were to be allowed in the fields at certain times of year, between lambing in mid-April and weaning in late July or early August. Other than at these times the breed has, ever since, been confined to the foreshore.
Illustrations by: Paul Swailes
They have, as a consequence, become an unusual breed. Whereas normal sheep eat by day, these flocks will also eat at night for they have had to adapt to a diet of mainly seaweed which means eating according to the tide times. As a result, they have developed an instinct which enables them to know the state of the tide with their inbuilt alarm system enabling them to rise to their feet just as the tide is about to ebb. In haste, every flock will follow the retreating sea, with each beast competing to munch on the cleanest blades. Some are even willing to swim into the ebbing water to be the first to reach the best pickings. Due to this dietary dependence on seaweed, they are unable to eat too much grass as its copper would poison them. This breed is also uniquely not entirely vegetarian, being able to digest the feet and legs of dead seabirds.
The breed's coat is naturally impregnated with lanolin which repels the weather and so protects the sheep. Shearing by machine would leave their skin too bare to withdraw salt water so this has to be done by hand, the shears leaving just over an inch of wool across the skin. As mentioned at the end of my last article, tradition dictates that shearing is done on the first new moon closest to the end of July or beginning of August.
One other peculiarity to the breed is something that would bring nightmares to modern farmers striving for standardisation. For these sheep will run together on the shore, preventing individual owners from selecting specific rams for breeding with their ewes. This 'breeding-free-for-all' has led to a remarkable range of wool colour, including chocolate brown, steel grey, black, white and cream. It is an individuality in the breed that the crofters take pride in and is something they do not plan to alter. And to be honest, I don't blame them.
a safe and peaceful Christmas.
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 101
The other day I came across a quote relating to the sun's disappearance beneath the western horizon just after the moon had risen: "Her hour of rest is haunted, her heart chilled by the cold face of her dead sister".The concept that the face of our neighbouring satellite is "dead and cold" is an interesting euphemism which I am certain would have been utterly discounted by our farming ancestors, for in their eyes, quite literally, the moon's 28-day cycle was very much alive.Indeed, the four phases of the moon, from New Moon to Full Moon and then round to the next New Moon, have long been considered a prominent factor in planting schedules. Furthermore, with evidence now backed up by modern scientific research, lunar farming is just as relevant today with many modern-day farmers endorsing the practice by utilising lunar rhythms as a tool for navigating planting periods and harvest dates.
It is a well-known fact that the moon's magnetic forces affect the tides of our oceans and lead to a swelling in two tidal bulges on the opposite sides of the earth. These bulges then cause the side of the earth closest to the moon to be swelled by gravity while the earth's opposite side is swelled by inertia.
Put simply, the moon dictates when the tide comes in and when it goes out.Perhaps less well known is that these same forces have an effect on ground water tables, with the moon's gravitational pull generating greater water content in the soil, a process which in turn enhances seed sprouting and plant growth. Evidence of such benefits to a plant's metabolism as a result of the moon has been proven through scientific research on trees where, during certain phases of the moon's cycle, a tree may have either a spurt in its initial growth or an increase in its germination rate. This effect also extends to a variety of plants such as root growth in sunflowers and beans and the extra absorption of oxygen in plants such as potatoes, carrots and sunflowers.
To explain in simple terms the four phases [or quarters] of the moon's cycle, it can be best to describe how much of the moon [it's 'face'] can be seen in the sky. The first phase is from when the moon rises in the west so close the sun's rising that the moon cannot be observed with the naked eye and ends when all of the right-hand side of its face can be seen. During this period the moon exerts a force on the earth's water opposite to that of the earth's gravity.This is considered to be a time when the ground is consequently fertile and wet and therefore an opportunity for lunar farmers to plant above ground and in particular leafy crops.With each passing day of the lunar month's second quarter, a little more of the moon's face is revealed in the sky, with its last day occurring when we see the Full Moon. Over this period the moon will still exert a pulling force on the earth's gravity, making it an ideal time for planting plants within enclosed seeds such as beans, tomatoes or peas. These first two quarters, from New Moon to Full Moon, are known as the moon's waxing phase. Lunar farmers see this period as being suitable for transplanting and sowing any short-lived plants. It is also believed to be a desirable time for planting plants with the intention to harvest flowers, leaves, seeds or fruits.
The moon's waning phase occurs during its third and fourth quarters, from Full Moon round to the next New Moon. In this period its gravitational pull on the earth lessens and, as a consequence, tides decrease and the earth's soil becomes drier. During the third quarter, a period that begins on the day after the Full Moon and finishes when we see only the left-hand face of the moon, the earth's gravity becomes focused on a root-ward direction. Lunar farmers will therefore use this time to plant longer lived crops such as perennials and root crops such as potatoes and carrots. Finally, during the last quarter of the moon's 28-day cycle, its lunar gravity [or 'pull'] is at its weakest. This allows the earth's own gravity to exert its strongest force, in turn pushing water tables to their lowest depths in the soil. With the soil drier and therefore easier to work. lunar farmers regard the moon's last phase as the best time for harvesting, transplanting and pruning. They also see it as an ideal time for soil improvement such as soil turning, weeding and adding compost.
As mentioned earlier, the value of accounting for lunar cycles in farming practices has been carried over from traditional wisdom. Moreover, so much did our agricultural ancestors place more emphasis on the lunar months rather than the solar year, they even christened each month's Full Moon with a name that had its roots in nature. For example, five months of the year had Full Moons named after animals. January's was traditionally known as the Wolf Moon, named after the howling wolves, while March has the Worm Moon because of the earthworms that come out at the end of winter. The Full Moon in July is known as the Buck Moon to signify the new antlers that appear on deer bucks' foreheads around this time and in August we see the Sturgeon Moon, named after the large number of fish in the lakes where the Algonquin tribes of East Canada fished. Finally, the Beaver Moon, which this year will rise on 19th November, is according to folklore named after beavers who become active while preparing for the coming winter.
Illustrated by: Paul Swailes
The names of two Full Moons traditionally relate to flowers.April's is known as the Pink Moon from the pink flowers of phlox that emerge in early spring whilst the Full Moon in May is simply called the Flower Moon to reflect the abundance of flowers that bloom during this month. A further two Full Moons have links with the weather, February's known as the Snow Moon and December's the Cold Moon. Some North American tribes named February's Full Moon the Hunger Moon due to the scarce food sources during midwinter, while June's is called the Strawberry Moon to reflect the little red berries that ripen at this time. On 20th October this year we will see the rising of the Hunter's Moon, a Full Moon that represented a traditional time when people in the northern hemisphere spent the month preparing for the coming winter by hunting, slaughtering and preparing meats. The Full Moon in July is also known as the Hay Moon while other names for August's include the Barley Moon and Grain Moon. Corn, meanwhile, is a feature of three Full Moons. In May we see the Corn Planting Moon, in August the Green Corn Moon and in September the Corn Moon. Finally, there is the Harvest Moon which, as I mentioned in last October's article, is the only Full Moon that can occur in one of two months, September or October, depending on which month's Full Moon is closest to the autumnal equinox.For example, this year's Harvest Moon occurred on 21st September, with the equinox on the following day, while last year's rose on the 3rd October.
Farming by the lunar calendar, however, both traditionally and in modern times, is not just limited to crops. On North Ronaldsay, for example, sheep shearing is always done on the first New Moon closest to the end of July or beginning of August.It is intriguing that this ancient custom is carried out on a breed that is one of the few links to the primitive sheep that first came to our isles. But more of this next time.
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 100
In April 2000, having spent the previous ten years enjoying holidays in North Devon, we sold our property in Brighton, gave up our jobs and moved into our static caravan in Berrynarbor. Out of work and with no idea whether we would find somewhere to live by the end of the season, I woke up the next morning and thought, "What have we done?" But sometimes in life you have to trust your gut instinct; and in our case we were right to trust those impulses. We soon gained employment and, just before the site closed for the year, we found a bungalow in which to live on the outskirts of Ilfracombe. There was, however, one consequence of that initial move to Berrynarbor that I did not envisage; having popped into the local village shop to purchase some goods, I also picked up, like I did on all our previous holidays, the latest copy of the Newsletter. Reading the editorial, I noticed how Judie never forgot to express her gratitude to the issue's contributors, adding that she would also appreciate articles from anyone who had not previously written a piece. Nothing unusual, perhaps, except that on this occasion, I had an inclination to put pen to paper.
From memory, that first offering was a ditty to do with how we had come to move to the area. Similar contributions followed, all being short lyrical odes. But it was in the spring of 2001, having witnessed the extensive clearance work in our garden that encircled our corner bungalow, that I had an urge to put together an article. The piece made analogies between our clearance work and the Great Storm of 1987, depicting the latter as an opportunity for the town in which I lived at the time, Brighton, to have a re-birth, with mature trees that had stood on guard for centuries being replaced by fresh, juvenile saplings; and where, in the woods out of town, grand old trees were allowed a respectable death with their decaying trunks providing food and shelter for a multitude of creatures. I then argued that, like the Great Storm, we too had robbed our garden of numerous trees, not to mention the overwhelming abundance of brambles which had provided blossom and fruits for wildlife to savour. But, as with the Great Storm, we too reaped benefits from our clearance work. Come early spring, a breathtaking carpet of snowdrops appeared, followed by a mass of miniature narcissi and finally a dazzling display of tall daffodils which, as I surveyed them swaying in a warm spring breeze, I likened to the wagging tails of puppy dogs on a parade: all on show and so much wanting to please us.
Having titled the article "Rural Reflections", I e-mailed it to Judie and soon received a grateful reply, along with that renowned, well-intentioned editor's question, "How about another one for the next issue?" And so here we are, a further ninety-nine contributions on. Who would have thought?
Looking back, it's interesting to see how many articles have, like that first offering, made analogies between mankind and our natural world [usually concluding that nature is wiser than man] or involving other reflective debates. For example, there was the piece about the imminent arrival of the wind turbines appearing on the North Devon landscape; another about local fields being given over to housing developments and one other debating the dominance of Friesian cattle over traditional British breeds. In relation to my own doorstep locality, I also argued whether the felling of trees in my local public woodland for Health and Safety reasons was, on the other hand, unfairly terminating their natural life expectancy.
Along with trees, wildflowers have also been the focus of my attention. For example, a run of articles followed my observations on the variety of flora observed in the Score Valley from early spring of one year through to late autumn. I have also used pieces to emphasise the benefits to nature that wild flowers can provide in a garden, finishing one article with the line, "may all your weeds be wildflowers!" Or as I said in another piece, it's about regarding those dandelions in a lawn as a blessing to nature; for whilst they may be spoiling those perfect green lines, they are at the same time acting as a valuable source of nectar and pollen for our bees, especially in early spring.
Viewing matters with a positive outlook has also been a regular feature of my contributions. Without doubt, becoming a writer for the Newsletter has encouraged me to take the time to stop, stare and reflect. It also led me to read more books by naturalists, many of whom I was surprised to discover experienced bouts of depression and found solace and therapy through walking in the countryside. In my own way I have also written many articles in the December and February issues in a bid to help readers who struggle with the winter months. In one piece I renamed S.A.D. "Spring Approaching Discovery" and in another concluded that the Newsletter's February issue should be titled the "Premature Spring" edition. In others I have made references to how spring's imminent arrival is evident within weeks of us bidding farewell to the old year and how, even in the depths of winter, nature is still busy at work despite everything appearing dormant.
All of the seasons and not just winter have been the key topic in certain articles. One piece again took on that 'glass half-full' approach, reasoning that whilst the blossom of some trees may be short lived, their brief displays ensure we appreciate their beauty even more. Another argued the 'for's and against''s' for each season, but concluded with the question "Who can dislike spring?" There was a feature on what colours our countryside provides in autumn beyond the shades of gold, brown, orange and yellow and one other about how an autumnal walk upon the Cairn led me to conclude that the season is shifting and now seems later than when I was a boy.
I had forgotten. too, the piece I wrote about an unplanned drive onto Exmoor in the middle of winter on an overcast day. Having pulled into a lay-by, I impulsively began climbing a footpath on a steep hillside. Reaching the ridge of the hill, I scanned my limited view and realised I could have been anywhere on the moor. Isolated and alone in the countryside for the first time ever in my life, I discovered how the company of the cool drizzle on my cheeks and the wind dashing past my ears ensured I felt safe and secure.
Other weather conditions have been a regular topic. A scrutiny of my contributions over the last 20 years reflects how meteorological records have been continually broken, not to mention the rural impact of unseasonable weather conditions. One article, for example, discussed the benefits of witnessing the increase in bird species in our villages and towns as a result of severe inclement weather in the countryside. In another piece I reflected upon the dominance of one particular bird species in our own gardens wherever we have lived; but more on our numerous abodes later.
Returning to weather related articles, there was the item about a visit to friends in South Molton close to Christmas 2004. Whilst we ate and laughed, black clouds gathered and then vigorously discharged their heavy raindrops, continuing to do so as I attempted to drive back to Ilfracombe late that night. Rivers burst their banks and drains overflowed, causing roads to either disappear beneath deep pools of water or become extensions of parallel rivers. Eventually, in the early hours of the following morning, I reached home. Yet within days of the incident, my experience had paled into insignificance when on Boxing Day an earthquake in the Indian Ocean caused a tsunami which killed over 200,000 people. Nature at its cruellest.
Other significant incidents have featured. Soon after I began contributing articles there was the outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease. More recently it has been the COVID-19 pandemic. In their own way, both are examples of our countryside having a respite from the trampling heels of the human race. During the first lockdown I wrote a piece about the enjoyment gained from bringing the countryside to my doorstep by watching the various birdlife in my own garden. It was something I recently discussed with my elderly uncle who, living in a park home surrounded by fields and woodland, used the lockdowns to relax on his veranda and observe his natural surroundings. He explained with glee how much he had learned about birdlife by just sitting and watching, not to mention how therapeutic it had been for him. A lesson for us all.
Giving lessons to youngsters, both directly and indirectly, have also been articles in their own right. Two come to mind. One centred around some youngsters who were taking it in turns to forcefully push each into a low-growing shrub in my local park. On politely asking them to stop, I had to hide my shock when they genuinely assumed that, with autumn imminent, the plant would lose its leaves and then die in winter, allowing the park keeper to plant something else in its place next spring. A brief nature lesson followed. Another article explained how I had enabled a group of local Girl Guides achieve their Duke of Edinburgh Award by assisting me collate records of wild flowers upon the Cairn during the course of twelve months. These records were then passed onto the Devon Wildlife Trust.
The Cairn has been a regular feature of my contributions during the ten years I lived in Ilfracombe. Indeed, on reflection I should conclude that my initial articles ignited a desire to learn more about my rural environment and in turn led me to write a book about the Cairn. Having that book published had been a life time's ambition and became the feature of another article.
There have been other instances where I have used my Rural Reflections space to share personal stories. For example, how the countryside was my therapy and refuge after the loss of my parents; how it provided comforting memories of Bourton and Gifford, our two black Labradors who were a regular feature of my early pieces but who are now happily running through the fields and woods up above; and how, by observing the way in which the branches of all the trees in my local woodland were intimately touching, it had reminded me of a get together I had meticulously arranged for my extended family tree.
My 'RR's' have also followed one other personal aspect in the life of me and my husband - our numerous moves! As already mentioned, the Cairn and the Score Valley featured regularly during the ten years we lived in Ilfracombe. On moving to Combe Martin it was another doorstep discovery, Hams Lane [a recommended walk] that I wrote about and in particular how I gave names to various key points along the route of the path. Our move to Riddlecombe then reflected upon how it was the first time we had ever lived in a remote hamlet with no amenities on hand and with the nearest shop two miles away. Yes, waking up to the sight of cows peering over our back fence was always a joyful sight; but the extent of the isolation proved too much. A return to civilisation through our next move to Yelland was, therefore, a relief; and, in any case, we still backed onto a horse's field and had farmland surrounding us.
But then I lost my job. "Let's move near the M5 corridor," we said. "There'll be better opportunities for work." And so the move to Weston-super-Mare. "We've still got the countryside nearby," we said. "And we'll soon adapt back to an urban setting." Except we didn't - and to think, I even wrote articles at the time convincing myself that we weren't missing a rural outlook. But who was I trying to fool? Oh, how we longed for a countryside view again. So, six years later, we moved to Minehead. Our rural surroundings are very much like North Devon [minus the turbines], except we're on the other side of the moor! Better still, it's an area that is relatively new to us, meaning new rural places on our doorstep to discover - and, no doubt, accompanying articles to follow!
Illustrated by: Paul Swailes
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 99
In the December issue of the Newsletter, I made reference to a violent storm that battered the North Cornwall coast in the mid 1850's. It was a storm that, despite its ferociousness, failed to disturb the slumber of the Reverend Robert Hawker, Vicar of the Parish of Morwenstowe. It was only at daybreak that he was awakened, not by the wind but by the sound of frantic knocking emanating from the front door of his vicarage. On rushing to the door and opening it, Hawker discovered one of his choirboys stood there, his eyes streaming with tears and his hands trembling. Through uncontrollable weeping the boy struggled to describe the dreadful shipwreck that had occurred at nearby Vicarage Rocks. Then, with his hands still violently shaking, the boy raised them up and showed Hawker a creature that he had in his possession and begged the vicar to relieve him of it. It was only later that Hawker discovered why the boy's hands were shaking so. For as he wrote in his diary, "I found out afterwards that the boy had grasped the creature on the beach and brought it in his hands as a strange and marvellous arrival from the waves, but in utter ignorance of what it may be." So what was this nautical arrival that the choirboy had never seen before? A tortoise.
As this issue goes to print some garden tortoises will be coming out of hibernation whilst others will still be tucked away enjoying the last few weeks of their winter slumber. Our own garden tortoise, however, was brought out of hibernation at the start of February. Being relatively young, Tommy only needs to hibernate for around three months. This will be extended the older he becomes. Yet some people, so I am led to believe, do not hibernate their garden tortoises at all, whilst a friend of ours is exceedingly pedantic about her tortoises's length of hibernation, tucking them up from Hallowe'en until the 1st of April.
Go on line and you will also find that advice on checking on a pet garden tortoise during its hibernation also varies considerably, from looking in on them weekly to completely leaving them alone. For the record, we do the latter - causing, I will admit, sleepless winter nights of worry; the relief when Tommy's head and legs start poking out of his shell, having been lifted out from his box, is a feeling that only fellow tortoise owners can empathise with! Oh, and in case you're wondering how Tommy keeps warm in those early weeks of post-hibernation, you can be rest assured that he knows to nestle up against the side of our Aga, turning occasionally to ensure both sides of his shell remain at a constant temperature.
Preferences on what owners give their pet tortoises to eat can also differ. When collecting Tommy from his previous owner we were informed [in no uncertain terms] that his favourite food was broccoli; to be cooked until fairly soft and served luke-warm and finely chopped; and she was right. But from the garden, au naturale, there is one wildflower along with its leaves which is also his favourite and from what I understand is adored by all garden tortoises.
The Romans called this wildflower Dens Lionis which translates as Leo Tooth whilst the French name is Dent de Lion, or Lion's Tooth. Both names are based on the jagged appearance of the plant's leaf. We know it, of course, as the dandelion, a flower which is renowned as a weed of garden flower beds and lawns and one that has in recent years spread along road verges on a massive scale being slightly salt resistant. Gardeners seeking the perfect lawn or weed-free flowerbed are also no doubt irritated by the plant's extensive flowering season, beginning as it does in February and lasting through until late summer; the reason, no doubt, why it is the staple ingredient of a garden tortoise's diet. Its early flowering is also a great benefit to our bees, for dandelions are rich in pollen and nectar, the latter something that bees heavily rely upon. It is important to remember that in a bee community only a young mated female will live on to carry hope of a new generation into the new year. Come early spring she knows only too well the need to fill her empty stomach with enough nectar to seek a suitable nest site. Every early dandelion counts. She is also fully aware at the rate at which a field of dandelions will turn to seed. Urgency is therefore paramount.
(By Paul Swailes)
The dandelion is a very variable plant that botanists divide into hundreds of similar micro species. There are some 150 native species to the British Isles along with a further 100 foreign arrivals that have increased the overall total. Whilst the leaves are rich in vitamins A and C and can be used in salads, the roots can make an agreeable substitute for coffee. It also makes a good homemade wine. A further historical reference to the plant can be found in World War II when dandelion latex provided the Soviet Union with rubber. Gypsies used to call the seed headed dandelion 'Queen's hairy dog flower' whilst other names include seed heads, blow balls, time-tellers and the school boy's clock.
The last name no doubt refers to a school game involving the seed headed flower to tell the time or predict a future event. This would be based upon the number of puffs required to dislodge all the seed heads from one plant. I remember a game at my primary school where the number of puffs determined what age you would live to, how many times you would marry and how many children you would have. But there was one detrimental experience involving these seed heads which is forever lodged in my memory.
Allowed, as we were, to use the adjacent field during our lunch break, a girl in my class began making me daisy chains. Keen to show my appreciation I presented her with a specially chosen bunch of dandelions, hand-picked from the field. Her face was aghast. "You're not my friend anymore and I'm not going to marry you!" she shrieked. "Boys who pick dandelions start wetting beds for the rest of their life." To be truthful, I've never looked at a dandelion in the same way since!
Enjoy the spring. Steve McCarthy
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 98
Whilst living in Brighton in the 1990's, I attended a creative writing course at a local college. One week our homework was to personalise something; in other words, to write about a thing ['it'] as though it were a person ['you']. The tutor told us to think 'outside the box', emphasising that the 'it' need not be a specific object and added that our work could be presented in any format;[ composition, prose, poetry or even a letter. From recall, I wrote a poem about my seizures which, in the opinion of the tutor, gave a chilling insight into the experience of having one especially when read in the context of 'you' rather than 'it'. It was also an unexpected therapeutic exercise as personalising my seizures enabled me to truly express how I felt about living with epilepsy at that stage of my life.
So, poised with pen and paper on the last day of 2020, I decided it was time to once again set myself the challenge. Firstly, to think outside the box and try not to consider a specific object. How about personalising the pandemic? Or maybe revisiting my epilepsy? Or perhaps personifying a colour, or a sound or even the weather? Suddenly, I chuckled, for as I gazed out of the lounge window, I once again relished the rural view that I was now looking out upon and compared it to the outlook from my home twelve months ago, thanks to moving last September from a town which I decided would be my subject matter. And the format? For some reason I felt compelled to write a letter.
Dear Weston super Mare,
It seems like only yesterday when I and my husband first got to know you. Where did those six years go? Such a pity, don't you think, that our friendship did not work out? But please, do not feel guilty, for you are not to blame.
On reflection, it was perhaps our fault for jumping headfirst into the relationship without first getting to know you. Plus, don't forget, it was us who made the assumption the relationship would work based on our previous urban friendships that had been amiable and successful. However, what we had not taken into consideration was the impact that our fourteen-year fellowship with North Devon had on us. Put simply, the closeness we developed with our rural companion meant that any future urban affinity was doomed from the start. We just failed to realise it at the time.
As I have mentioned, we did not do our research. Nor did we consider what we were sacrificing in my bid to find alternative employment somewhere along the M5 corridor. We had forgotten how we always had dog walks literally on our doorstep. Instead we suddenly had to drive everywhere. Gone, too, were the clean running streams that our three Labradors adore, replaced as a substitute by the muddy riverbanks and algae-covered rhynes which edged all of your nearby fields. Oh, how it was a constant effort preventing the coats of our Labradors from turning black or chocolate-brown into shades of green or grey, not to mention adorning them with that pungent aroma of stagnant water! Yes, you provided us with local woodland, where, unfortunately, the ground was too rocky and sharp for the delicate paws of our eldest Labrador.
A pity too, how we found your surrounding countryside uninspiring; for we had grown so used to the rolling hills, the steep valleys and the hedge-banks which our previous companion had aplenty. No doubt many people gain great pleasure from your Levels, but to be brutally honest, we just don't do flat! And whilst I cannot deny you provided entertainment and provisions for your inhabitants, it wasn't for us. Where were your farm shops, country fairs, village fetes and quaint tea rooms? But, worst of all, we had no outlook and lived amongst the constant din of traffic. Both peace and rural views were aspects we had taken for granted whilst being in the company of our old pal. Yes, we thought we would be able to once more live without them. But we were wrong.
Be pleased for us though, for we have found a new friend in Minehead. We live on the outskirts with a rural view across to North Hill and the border of Exmoor. Needless to say, there are bountiful supplies of dog walks amongst countryside which looks like a twin of our old chum, North Devon, and where our Labradors can once again enjoy fast-flowing streams where they come out the same colour as they went in! We have yet to enjoy the many pastoral community events on offer but have at least savoured the local amenities including a farmer's market and farm shop. Oh, how refreshing it is to once more be within a rural environment! And best of all, serenity surrounds us. No more hustle and bustle.
As I said at the start of this letter, it was a pity that our relationship did not work out. But let's not be negative. Instead, let us view our six-year friendship as an experience my husband and I needed to go through in order to realise what we truly want out of life, and more importantly, to recognise that whilst we both have urban roots within us, those metropolitan seeds have germinated into strong rural branches and buds above ground. We are back in the countryside, and we're here to stay. Best of all, with the daylight hours increasing and with spring just around the corner, we have so much to look forward to.
Illustrated by: Paul Swailes
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 97
Smuggling from shipwrecks was once a regular occurrence along the coastlines of North Devon and North Cornwall. At its worst, the practice brought out the most calculated and deceitful nature of the coastal villages' inhabitants. For example, a contemporary report about the wreckers of Morwenstowe stated that they would "allow a fainting brother to perish to the sea, without extending a hand of safety." It was within such an environment that the Reverend Robert Hawker [b1803], or Parson Hawker as he became known by locals, chose to carry out his service to God when he became vicar of the Church of St Morwena and St John the Baptist in the remote rural parish of Morwenstowe in 1831. Yet by the time of his death in 1875, this eccentric character, with a strong aversion to black, was held in such high regard by his parishioners that as a mark of respect at his funeral they chose to wear purple instead. In fact, such was his disdain for black, any onlooker was sure to witness a vibrant choice of dye colouring for his clothing. During church services he donned a yellow vestment and scarlet gloves; whilst going about the parish on his beloved mule he would be seen wearing a claret-coloured tailcoat, a fisherman's jersey with a cross embroidered over his heart and a pink brimless hat; and if the weather was inclement he would sport a yellow blanket he had especially sourced in Bideford, having discovered a hole in its middle which was perfect in circumference for his head!
But his eccentricity was not just limited to his dress code. He could also act in ways which were regarded as somewhat curious. One night, for example, he decided to swim out to a rock at Bude naked, except for an oilskin wrapped around his legs and strands of seaweed delicately positioned upon his head to give the impression of a wig. Once secure and comfortable upon the rock he began singing in an unearthly voice whilst looking at his reflection in a glass in order to comb his green slithery hair. The rural natives began to gather on the shoreline in wonder at their discovery of a real mermaid with hair that glistened in the moonlight! Relishing the attention, Hawker repeated the act the following night, noticing on his arrival that a larger crowd had gathered. In order not to disappoint his audience, he chose to end his performance by plunging into the sea and disappearing out of sight. The next evening an even bigger crowd arrived, the throng now including onlookers from neighbouring villages. This time before submerging into the water he ended his singing with a vigorous rendition of God Save the King.
Like many eccentrics he was also a loner - perhaps the reason why he chose such a remote area to ply his trade. However, the best example of his need to be alone was the hut he erected close to Higher Sharpnose Point, roughly one mile from Morwenstowe Church. Built out of driftwood and timber from shipwrecks, Hawker constructed it into the hillside so he could look out to the Atlantic. This was a place, no doubt, where he gained inspiration for his sermons and poems. The original hut has since been replaced by one of mainly timber with a turf-covered top. Now owned by National Trust [it is their smallest property], it can be accessed from the South West Coast Path.
Hawker probably also used his hut to observe the moods of the weather and sea in order to foresee the likelihood of any shipwrecks; for it was in such a scenario that he carried out what was arguably his greatest deed. He had been in the parish around 25 years when on an autumn evening a violent storm erupted. It rattled the windows of the old Morwenstowe Church so furiously, Hawker had to shout during the service so he could be heard above the din. In the churchyard, sycamore branches were whipped and headstones knocked flat. The storm raged throughout the night, the doors to his vicarage clattering and its windows flapping. Yet Parson Hawker slept through it all. Only at daybreak did he stir, awoken by one of his choirboys banging on the front door. "Oh Sir," the boy cried. "There are dead men on Vicarage Rocks." The Parson immediately rushed out in his dressing gown and slippers, ran the quarter of a mile to the cliffs and descended the 300 feet to the beach. He instantly began bringing to shore sailors, both dead and alive; and, more significantly, as locals arrived on the scene and witnessed Hawker's actions, they instantly did the same. Looting goods or leaving men to die was not given a second thought, such was the high esteem in which the parson was held - in an era when, as the saying went, 'save a stranger from the sea and he'll turn your enemy'. In sheer contrast, however, these locals respected how Parson Hawker gave every dead sailor a Christian burial and how he had survivors stay at his vicarage until they were fully recovered.
So what was it about Hawker that led these isolated, rural and, in some cases, law-breaking locals to change their attitude? Why was this parson held in such high esteem? To answer these questions, I believe there are two factors to bring to light. Firstly, he was widely known for his reckless generosity to the poor of his parish and those who were shipwrecked. Secondly, people who go about their lives on an even keel, their temperament always
calm and their demeanour emitting a sense of solidity and security naturally gain respect. Parson Hawker was one such person. For there was an upper stillness in which he lived. To him the remote, rural village of Morwenstowe was a truly holy place, his church 'a chancel in the sky'. What's more, it was in that dusty chancel that he was confident that he could see St Morwena; and whilst nobody knows quite who she was or precisely what she did to become a saint, Hawker felt he knew her intimately. But his bond with heavenly forms extended beyond Morwenwtowe's dedicated parochial saint. In one of his poems he tells of how, whilst praying in his church, he could hear angelic hymns: 'We see them not - we may not hear; The music of their wing; Yet know we that they sojourn near; The Angels of the Spring.'
We talk of Christmas as the season of goodwill. However, this year we saw, to quote Reverend Robert Hawker, the emergence of 'Angels in the Spring' with the onset of Coronavirus. Tragic though this has been, the outbreak has brought communities together and led people to go out of their way in order to support vulnerable neighbours, friends and family during these unprecedented times. Like Parson Hawker, may your acts of boundless generosity and kindness continue. Merry Christmas.
Illustrations: Paul Swailes
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 96
The Harvest Moon is the full moon that appears in the sky closest to the autumnal equinox. It is more frequently seen in September, the equinox occurring on or near to the 23rd and is observed every three years in October. This year it can be witnessed on the 1st October; the same date, by coincidence, that the first Harvest church service took place in 1843, conducted by the Reverend Robert Hawker in his parish church in Morwenstowe. But more of this eccentric character later.
Most people are likely to have heard of the Harvest Moon. Many are also no doubt aware it is the name associated with an autumnal full moon. Perhaps less well known is that every full moon has a name dependent upon the month in which it falls, some years have 13 full moons, the extra being known as a Blue Moon. This October is one such month, the second full moon rising on the 31st. If the Harvest Moon occurs in September then it is also known as the Corn or Barley Moon whilst October's full moon is known as the Hunter's Moon.
Tracking the changing seasons by following the lunar months, rather than the solar year, was common in ancient times and is the reason why full moon names have their roots in nature and their origins in ancient cultures. However, of all these names, it is the origins of the Harvest Moon that is open to debate. Some sources claim it came from Native American month names which, according to the Old Farmer's Almanac, were adopted and incorporated into our modern calendar. European experts, meanwhile, are keen to point out that the Harvest Month is recorded as early as the 700's in both Anglo-Saxon and Old High German languages.
So why is it that the full moon closest to the autumnal equinox is known as the Harvest Moon? After all, the word harvest usually refers to the corn crops reaped from July through to October. One theory connects it to historical records which reveal that its name represented a time when farmers harvested the last of their summer crops in the final evenings of prolonged light before winter came along. In this case, however, the term 'prolonged light' does not relate to the period when the sun is setting and the proceeding dusk. On the contrary, it is referring to the characteristics of the full moon that are unique to this time of year. For the Harvest Moon typically appears bigger, brighter and more colourful than the average full moon.
This is due to two factors. Firstly, its placement in the sky compared to other times of year. Secondly, throughout most of the year the moon rises an average of fifty minutes later each day.
But on several nights before and after the Harvest Full Moon, it may rise as little as 23 minutes later. This allows it to rise soon after sunset for several evenings in a row so that to the naked eye there appears to be a succession of full moons. More significantly, it provides an abundance of bright moonlight early in the evening which is a valuable aid to farmers when harvesting their crops.
Of course, modern harvesting bears no resemblance to traditional methods. I was reminded of these old-fashioned techniques recently when reading Before The Lake - Memories of Chew Valley, in which the editor, Leslie Ross, has collated recollections of people who lived and farmed in the Somerset valley before it became a lake in 1956. One contributor recalled harvest time and hay making, explaining how men from the local coal pits, working fewer hours in summer time due to the lower demand for coal, would be keen to help out. The contributor describes these men as 'useful, strong, capable and willing', adding that they 'enjoyed the change of working in the open fields'.
Illustrated by: Paul Swailes
Although not paid well, the coal workers were at the same time grateful for the tea, cider and food brought out by the womenfolk, the contributor emphasising how their home-made bread, cheese, pickles and cakes were served with 'secret pride'. She adds that all the local children would also join in at harvest time, recalling how they tussled over who would ride on the horses drawing the wagons laden with the haystacks and who would sit on top of them!
Trevor Robinson is another author who refers to harvest time in his book Working with the Curlew - A Farmhand's Life. Having initially spent his farming life in Yorkshire, he later moved to a farm near Leominster where over time he came to realise how the farming calendar was programmed in such a way as to bring together all the different forms of agriculture to a common meeting point, whether they be stock or arable. Of all these occasions, Robinson is keen to emphasise that the end of harvesting, a time he describes as 'when all the harvest was in under cover', was one 'of great relief, (having a) sense of achievement (as if) the whole year seemed to climax at this point.' He acknowledges, too, how the Harvest Festival, or Harvest Home as some locals called it, had a great meaning for the farming community. What's more, whilst openly admitting his own scepticism of the spiritual realm, he confesses how heart-warming he still found the Church's recognition of this key event in the rural calendar - and is prepared to admit to singing with great gusto, the hymn We Plough the Fields and Scatter.
Harvesting one's crops can perhaps also be used as a metaphor for our own lives, the drawing in of the evenings a period for us to reflect upon what we have worked for over the last six months and to consider what fruits we have reaped from the labours of our efforts. Are there any loose ends that need tying up in order to be ready to set new goals for the months when the hours of darkness outweigh those of daylight?
I can imagine the Reverend Robert Hawker using the concept of harvesting one's crops as a spiritual metaphor for one of his sermons at a Harvest Service. Maybe he used it at that inaugural service is 1843? He conceived the idea of such a service as a means of giving thanks to God for providing such a bountiful crop to his parishioners that year, inviting them to a Harvest Service where the bread used at the Communion was to be made from the first cut of local corn. These services became an annual event and in time led to the introduction of the Harvest Festival that we know today.
When he came to Morewenstowe Vicarage in 1834, Parson Hawker, as he became known, found that the verger had burnt most of the old chancel screen when tidying up the church in preparation for his arrival. Parson Hawker soon set to, rescuing the remains and fixing them up across the chancel arch. In so doing he managed to use the dusty chancel as an area in which to conduct his services, wearing throughout a yellow vestment and scarlet gloves, no doubt startling the church warden when a pair of scarlet hands were thrust through the screen to collect the offertory bags! In the same year of his first Harvest Service, Parson Hawker also introduced the weekly offering in church. Both eccentric and innovative, there was much more to this Reverend who rose to the challenge of plying his trade in this rural, remote parish with a coastline renowned for shipwrecks and the subsequent unchristian practice of smuggling. But more of this next time.
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 95
In the June 2019 Newsletter, Jenny Williams compared the day-to-day life of a butterfly to one that is lived solely in the present moment. She then added that this is something that we can all experience with enjoyment and reward during our time on this earthly plane. My last article was testimony to this, the piece featuring the various bird activity I had observed whilst sat in my back garden. By doing so, I had been able to appreciate my natural environment at a time when, due to the COVID19 outbreak, the government had initially put in place strict safety restrictions on our movements;limitations which as a consequence inhibited usual explorations of my rural locale.
Interestingly, my observational practice did not just achieve the goal of bringing the countryside to my doorstep. It also encouraged me to remain focused on the here and now;for it was not just my visual radar that remained on red alert - all of my senses became instinctively honed in on my surroundings.This in turn helped distract my thoughts away from the coronavirus.No longer did I dwell on previous news bulletins or fret over possible negative outcomes. Moreover, it helped me maintain a healthy outlook - something I have continually encouraged others to do by seeking out positive new items whilst the crisis continues.
Positive thinking is good for one's well-being.It was therefore interesting that when the initial lockdown was imposed the government were keen for people, if they could, to still go out once a day for a non-essential walk, cycle or run for the benefit of their physical and mental health. I found it a curious choice of terminology. Whilst I cannot doubt the physical benefits that can be gained from undertaking these pursuits, I feel that any psychological gain, in particular from walking, is dependent upon the participant's mental attitude. For if a walk is to be mentally advantageous it is vital that, like a butterfly, the walker enjoys the present moment by taking in their surroundings and drawing upon the positive features that they notice within their environment.
This practice is similar to the concept of mindful walking, something Robert McFarlane adhered to on numerous walks that he undertook in his book The Old Ways. On one trip, he recalled how he had just set out on a hike with a Spanish friend along a Calzada Romana [Spanish Roman road] when he noticed what looked like a large jay feather [he later discovered it had come from an azure-winged magpie.] "You see," his friend commented, "I don't need to walk miles to find things out.Six paces will do well for me." He then added, "There is a Spanish saying, Caminar ses atesorar!, which means to walk is to gather treasure!" What a beautiful metaphor; for if you mindfully walk in the present moment, you will indeed see things you have never discovered before.
When writing his book, McFarlane was keen to emphasis how Edward Thomas [b1878] was his guiding spirit.Thomas was a singer, soldier, poet and essayist who from a young age was both a keen walker and writer.After making a reputation with travel logs, natural history books and biographies, he turned to poetry in the winter of 1914, writing 142 poems in just over four years.Yet throughout his life - one that was curtailed when he was killed on the opening dawn of the battle of Arres in 1917 - he had battled with depression.Walking was Thomas's therapy and in particular tracking along ancient ways which in his view were 'potent, magic things . . . worn by the trailing staves of long dead generations.'
On each walk, he would internalise the features of its path-filled landscape; every corner, junction, style, finger post, fork, crossroad, each small track that led off the path and all that beckoned from a hilltop.Thomas not only thought on paths; he thought of each path and with each path, allowing him to make what he called 'time as nothing'. But most critically, paths gave form to his melancholy and hopes.
The Downs were his heartland, being at the centre of his 'South Country'. For this was an area he had walked on far longer than any other. On one occasion, whilst he and his wife Helen were staying in Wiltshire, they were walking along an old track when they noticed the prehistoric White Horse figure in the hills at Uffington, formed from deep trenches and filled with crushed white chalk.Helen immediately became thrilled by what she proclaimed as 'discoveries upon the ancient ways' that allowed her to 'have a sense of being connected by footfall to history and tradition.'Her comment pleased Thomas, now satisfied that he had fulfilled his ambition to teach his wife to walk differently; not just with her legs, or even with all of her body - but to feel the landscape as she moved over it.
Like Thomas, the writer George Borrow [b1803] was also a depressive. Although he took to tramping in the 1820's, he cut a distinctive figure in the countryside, always dressed in a black cloth suit, white stockings and sombrero.He had an awesome stamina, walking thousands of miles across England, Wales, France, Spain and Russia.To help manage his depression he would study with intent his vista as he walked. When reading his prose one can sense him feel the breeze in his face, study the stars for his ceiling and use the hedgerows to philosophise. In time, this form of what Borrow regarded as 'open journeying', led to a growing cult of 'leisure vagabondage' which, by the end of the 1800's, had led to the foundation of the first walking clubs. It also inspired the writer and ornithologist W.H. Hudson [b1841] to pioneer psychogeography - the concept of walking and waiting - which he regarded as 'the charm of the unknown.'
Meanwhile across the Atlantic, the mountaineer John Muir [b1838] achieved a walk of 1000 miles from Indianapolis to Florida Keys in 1867. Fifteen years later, the Sierra Club Foundation was conceived, inspired by Muir's conviction that 'the walker's bodily contact with the wild world benefits both walker and world' and that, 'going out . . . was really going in'.
The Scottish writer and poet Nan (Anna) Shepherd [b1893] was especially expressive about her bodily connection with the land upon which she walked, in particular placing emphasis upon the union between the soles of her feet and the ground beneath them. 'Walking barefoot has gone out of fashion', she wrote in 1945. 'But sensible people are reviving the habit.'In his book, McFarlane recollects the occasions when he too walked barefoot detailing the terrains' textures, sensations, resistances, planes and slopes. He regarded these episodes as occasions when 'the skin of the walker meets the skin of the land', adding that such contact provides a tactile detail of the landscape that can go so easily unnoticed when walking.A truly mindful approach - and one that Nan Shepherd would greatly approve of.
Shepherd is best known for her seminal mountain memoir The Living Mountain, based on her experiences of hill walking in the Cairngorms. She brings the book to a close by stating that 'on the mountains I am beyond desire . . . I am not out of myself but in myself. I am.' In other words, she celebrated what is known as the metaphysical rhythm of the pedestrian - put simply, the beat of the lifted and placed foot.This is the true definition of mindful walking;and for people who, despite their attempts to take in their surroundings still have difficulty diverting their thoughts from the past or future, focusing on one's footsteps should do truly bring one's attention into the present moment.
Personally, however, I find that studying all that I see around me suffices - and by undertaking close observations, I find that I see new things every day even on the same walk. It was the same for the American essayist, poet and philosopher Henry David Thoreau [b1817] who found that great happiness could be gained from the prospect of going for a regular walk and noticing something new. As he put it, 'a single farmhouse which I had not seen before is sometimes as good as the Dominions of the King of Dahoney.'
So why not try it? Or if you have difficulty getting out, maybe studying a pictorial book or magazine? Either way, you will be bringing your attention to the here and now - and in so doing, allow your fears and worries to ease away.
RURAL REFLECTIONS 94
Our primitive ancestors had little time to relax and appreciate their rural surroundings. Had mindfulness been around back then it would not have had many followers, the concept of living in the present moment being low on their list of priorities. For they had more pressing matters to deal with, including where they would source their next meal or firewood and whether predators or enemy tribes were lurking on the horizon. It was also vital that they stored in their primeval memory banks, previous hunts, especially unsuccessful attempts so as not to re enact them, as well as reflecting on fruitful outcomes in order to plan future successful quests. Much as this was to our ancestors' benefit, our unique DNA system has unfortunately ensured that our brains, now three times in size, have inherited that same mode of thinking in a modern world where we no longer require it to do so. As a result, we have a tendency to replay past negative experiences, each recollection making the event seem a little worse than it actually was. Likewise, our brains are also programmed to think ahead, often simulating adverse situations that may never happen. Put simply, negative thinking sticks to our hippocampus [the memory part of our brain] like Velcro, which is why it takes ten positive thoughts to outweigh each negative!
It is for this reason I feel it is so important that in the current climate we restrict the amount of negative news that we watch, hear and read regarding COVID19. Instead we must absorb the positive media reports, for example how people are pulling together and stepping up to support those in need. With this in mind I am, by coincidence, compiling this article on the 100th birthday of Captain [now Honorary Colonel] Tom Moore. Having originally set out with the intention of raising £1,000 for NHS frontline staff battling the Coronavirus by walking 100 laps of his garden, he had by the evening of his birthday raised nearly £32 million. What an inspiration to us all! Along the way he also co released a charity single, You'll Never Walk Alone with Michael Ball that went straight to the top of the charts; an achievement which at the age of 99 made him the oldest male vocalist to have a number one hit since Tom Jones did a remake of Islands in the Stream for Comic Relief in 2009 at the comparatively youthful age of 69. Before him, the record holder had been 66 year old Louis Armstrong with his hit What a Wonderful World, which topped the charts in 1968.
The following year saw the release of the James Bond film On Her Majesty's Secret Service. This had We Have All the Time in the World as its featured song, the line taken from Bond's final words spoken after the death of his wife. Although too ill to play his trumpet, composer John Barry particularly wanted Armstrong as the vocalist feeling that his voice could deliver the title line with irony.
The titles of both of Armstrong's songs seem to resonate, somewhat with irony, with our current situation; for when one comes to consider our four seasons, spring is arguably the one that, from a rural perspective, proves beyond doubt that we do indeed live in a wonderful world. No other time of year sees as many comings and goings as late winter merges into spring and then fulfils its potential before blending into early summer. There is the blackthorn, hawthorn and cherry blossoms; the snowdrops, the daffodils, the primroses, the buttercups, the bluebells and the cow parsley. Unfortunately, restricted as we have all been to either remain housebound or at best be restricted to one outing per day within a reasonable distance of our homes, we have been unable to fully appreciate spring's transformation.
Whether you have been confined to your home on government advice, furloughed from work or are an essential worker restricted to your outdoor activities, one thing is certain: we currently seem to have all the time in the world. Filling that time productively for such a long period has, quite understandably, proved quite a challenge for some people. Personally, I decided that the best way to tackle the issue was to bring the countryside to me by sitting in my back garden and living in the present moment through observing the natural events taking place around me; and in so doing found that, unlike our primitive ancestors, I no longer dwelt on the negative news bulletins or concerned myself with possible outcomes.
With the sky now devoid of airliners' vapour trails, it was the surrounding birdlife to which I found myself being drawn. Ever present was a male blackbird perched on the roofs of either our bungalow or our neighbours', or on the telegraph pole, on our garage roof or in our mahonia tree. From dawn until dusk he sung his lyrical tune which had that characteristic gap before singing a collection of new notes. A female blackbird had been previously present, her current absence a sign she was now perhaps sitting upon eggs. It had been lovely watching them have their morning dip never together, it must be emphasised, the male always perching on the edge of the birdbath to allow his mate to splash and preen herself without interruption. On the day of writing she reappeared, her clutch having possibly successfully fledged. Before lockdown we had also watched a pair of doves successfully build a nest in the mahonia, defying storm force winds which interweaved the branches but failed to upset the nest. It was fascinating observing the pair's meticulousness for choosing the correct length and girth of stick on the ground for the next addition to the nest. In time, two chicks hatched which we had the pleasure of watching grow until they could barely fit in the nest. Then early one morning they fledged.
Their hatching as chicks encouraged crows from nearby conifers to our garden, no doubt considering them a possible food source for themselves. We also used to see them before our neighbour had his leylandii trees felled pre nesting season I must add. For this was where a pair of wood pigeons would annually raise offspring, attacks from crows and magpies having been successfully overcome. Unfortunately, the male and female had mated ahead of felling and for two weeks perched on our fence waiting for the trees to miraculously reappear. Eventually the female vacated the scene, the male continuing to arrive daily to either eat seed on the lawn, having first landed on the feeder and forcibly swung on it to cause seeds to fall out, or to take a late morning splash which subsequently required a complete replenishment of water in the bird bath.
One morning as I stepped outside to take my seat, I was frozen to the spot by surprise. What occurred took place in an instant. From nowhere, so it seemed, a sparrowhawk soared low across our neighbours' gardens before sweeping diagonally up and away and out of sight. At the very same time, the wood pigeon, previously perched at ease upon our garage roof, fluttered fast into the air across to the safe protection of the high conifers. Presumably a female sparrowhawk, the male leaves her to take out larger prey, I can only guess that my sudden appearance on the scene distracted her from her attack. It is the first time I have witnessed an attempt on such a species since living here, for they usually prey upon our nearby neighbour's racing pigeons when they are let out once a day to display their acrobatic flying formations. Periodically a solitary pigeon may veer off course and it is then, with dynamic speed, that the sparrowhawk appears overhead and takes the pigeon out.
One other nest builder has been a female blue tit. Having initially spent time checking out the nest box attached to our garage, both the male and female disappeared, only to return a fortnight later. Soon the female began the construction of her nest whilst the male kept a watchful eye on possible contenders; and a good job he did, a great tit soon wading in and attempting to gazump the homemakers. A fierce battle took place within the mahonia tree, the male blue tit claiming victory. Meanwhile the female continued her creation using both moss and dog fur, the latter having been attached to the pole of the birdfeeder after our three Labradors had been brushed! Before long just the male was observed, making vigilant visits the to the box throughout the day to feed his partner. Come the last day of April chicks could be heard calling each time a parent entered the nest box with food.
Other visitors to the garden have included a lone dunnock eating seeds surrounding the cotoneaster at the bottom of the feeders and a pair of gold finches either enjoying the Nyjer seeds or taking a drink at the birdbath. Their markings deserve appreciation; that distinctive red face, white patch behind the eye and their black crown and nape, along with their distinguishing yellow wing patches, that black tail and long pointed bill. Unusual sightings have included a solitary buzzard circling on the thermals overhead, a rook perusing the lawn and a house sparrow that paid a single visit to the feeders.
I should like to round off my article by returning to Captain Tom Moore. On his 100th birthday he received a card from the Queen with a personalised message; and deservedly so. He also received a special message from fellow centenarian Dame Vera Lynn who said, "Like the rest of the country, I was so inspired by his achievement over the past few weeks." All three share a common empathy; for they are old enough to remember only too well the last time our world experienced such a global cataclysm: World War Two. It seemed, therefore, only fitting and, moreover, reassuring when Her Majesty concluded her recent address to the Commonwealth regarding the Coronavirus with the words that are supremely associated with Dame Vera: "We will be with our friends again. We will be with our families again. We will meet again." And, if I may take the liberty to add, we will someday soon be able to reconnect with our beautiful countryside once again.
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 93
In the February issue of the Newsletter I wrote about the copious displays of daffodils, both wild and cultivated, that I had observed whilst traversing my local Somerset countryside in early spring last year. Come late April, it was the turn of the bluebells, the most dazzling display witnessed whilst driving along the western flanks of the Malvern Hills which border Worcestershire and Herefordshire. Its woodland floors were awash with the flowers, their density only intensified where glades and patches of large open slopes offered ground that had been transformed into myriads of blue.
Photo: Steve McCarthy
It was the Swedish botanist and great plant namer, Carl Linnaeus who was to christen this flower which belongs to the hyacinth family. By then, he had already given the true hyacinth its Latin name, hyacinthoides, which he based upon the Greek God Apollo's apparent wailing at the death of his lover Hyacinth; with a little imagination, Linnaeus opined, Appollo's cry was visible in the flower's head. As for the poor bluebell, which has a flower turning downwards towards the ground, he unfortunately regarded it as being merely an 'unmarked' plant; and so, considering it a plant that had no need of any particular description, he named it hyacanthoides non scripta - a hyacinth with no writing on it.
The plant, also called the wild hyacinth, is better known in Scotland as the harebell. It has many country names across the UK including crow flower, goose gander and culverkeys. It is also called both the wood hyacinth and wood bell for it is at heart a woodland plant ideally suited to deciduous woodlands that offer plenty of light in early spring. Yet this is also a very versatile plant with the ability to grow in a wide range of habitats, with bogs and fens perhaps the only two exceptions. Shade, however, is its main prerequisite in order to thrive as well as continuity of habitat. Humidity adds the third essential ingredient to enable it to flourish and is the most likely reason the plant does so well in the west country, even in open spaces.
Illustrated by:Paul Swailes
Bluebells only grow on Europe's western fringes and cannot be found anywhere south of the Mediterranean or extending north into Scandinavia. This applies not just to the native variety but also to its impostor, the Spanish bluebell which, along with many other plants, began arriving in this country from the continent in the 17th century. London ports were its preferred destination where local nurserymen had become aware of the plant's increasing popularity due to its yielding ability to grow. Soon they were being sold to gardeners as the native bluebell, an unscrupulous business which according to some reports still goes on today. Thankfully the Spanish bluebell can be distinguished from its native counterpart as the Spanish variety is more erect, has blue anthers [the native plant has cream] and, unlike the native bluebell, does not have flowers confined to one side of the spike. Awareness of trading this imitation of the real thing has ironically created another problem with bluebell woods being stripped as part of a big horticultural crime business in order to sell on the true native bluebell. As a result, the area covered by Britain's bluebell woodlands has halved since 1950. For evidence, just take a closer look at a low hedge bank where you may just witness a ghostly reminder of a boundary of a former ancient bluebell woodland. Despite all this, the UK still accounts for more than half of the world's bluebell biomass as the plant adores our damp, Atlantic climate. This means that our bluebell population is of national importance, making us crucially responsible for its future; it is imperative that we become more conscious of its threatened status.
In order for them to flourish, bluebells need to be properly managed. For example, being allowed to grow under a coppiced rotation. It is a hardy plant that can endure 17-year cycles, or even longer, in areas with inadequate light levels and then make a spectacular appearance when the canopy is removed. In stable situations it is able to survive for years and can endure both the wind and the cold. It is also allelopathic, producing chemicals at bulb level which discourage competition from other plants. A truly remarkable species.
In the 16th century starch was obtained from the bulbs to stiffen neckties, whilst strong glue was once sourced from scraping the roots and used for making arrows and for book binding. Modern history, meanwhile, records special 'bluebell trains' that were laid on for city dwellers. The dawn of a new millennium saw the conservation charity Plantlife organise, in 2002, a national poll allowing people to vote for their favourite county flower. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the result in twenty counties found the bluebell to have the majority vote. As a consequence, it has been adopted as the wildflower emblem of the UK and specially rated as Britain's favourite flower.
The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins depicted patches of bluebells as 'falls of sky colour'. But perhaps the most appropriate portrayal is expressed by the nature writer Richard Mabey who described bluebell woods as 'a uniquely British spectacle.' And who can disagree with him?
Happy Easter and enjoy the spring.
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 92
In my last article I made reference to some of the wildlife and plant life affected by the heatwave of 2018. There were both winners and losers, with Rosebay Willowherb one of the beneficiaries as it was able to take advantage of areas where the intense heat had either stunted the growth of other plants well before they had the opportunity to become established or where fires had destroyed plant life altogether.
That autumn, the plant's annual airborne dispersal of millions of seeds subsequently colonised these areas so that last year's late summer months saw prolific displays of the tall, pretty pink flower spikes.
Yet as I travelled around Somerset's countryside in 2019, it was not just fireweed, as it is also known, that I spotted in abundance. For in early spring I witnessed a profusion of daffodils - both wild as well as cultivated, which is surprising when one considers that the county is not known for being a stronghold of the wild variety.
Its Latin name, Narcusus pseudonarcusus, is after the boy in Greek mythology who was condemned by the gods to fall in love with his own reflection. It was a plant that grew copiously in England for hundreds of years - so much so, that in the late sixteenth century the Jesuit priest, John Gerard, regarded it as being, "So well known to all, it needeth no description." However, following a rapid decline in the plant, the same could not be said by the mid-nineteenth century where the countryside, especially across much of central and eastern England, had been subject to agricultural intensification and field drainage. Demand, too, for larger cultivated varieties - native daffodils are relatively small - also led to its demise in many areas. Now, the true wild daffodil is restricted to particular stretches of our mainland although they can also be found in smaller numbers in ancient oak woodlands and churchyards.
One region in which it still manages to abound is along the border of Gloucestershire and Herefordshire. This was christened the Golden Triangle in the 1930's, at a time when the plant was playing an important role in the region's local economy with flowers being picked and sent to markets in South Wales and northern industrial towns. This was also an era when the Great Western Railway laid on Daffodil Special Excursions from London. In time, a 10-mile-long Daffodil Way began being constructed between the villages of Dymock, Kempley and Four Oaks, eventually opening in 1988. Today, daffodil teas are still held in the region's local parish halls.
Another bastion is in the Lake District. It was here that on the 15th April 1802, Dorothy Wordsworth wrote in her journal, "I never saw daffodils so beautiful. They grew among the mossy stones about them; some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness; and the rest tossed and reached and danced and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the lake." Her encounter would go on to inspire her brother, William, to write his most famous work, "I wandered lonely as a cloud." These days the descendants of those daffodils are conserved at Growbarrow Park by the National Trust as a 'historic feature of Ullswater'.
The daffodil is, of course, the national flower of Wales, the original specimens thought to be the wild Lent Lily. It goes without saying that the flower is always worn with pride by welsh people on the 1st March, St David's Day. A plant that flourishes today in the Black Mountains, it was at the end of the eighteenth century that a welsh botanist discovered wild daffodils growing in proliferation in fields and pastures between Tenby and the Presel Hills in Pembrokeshire. Soon to assume a local name, the Tenby Daffodil became so highly fashionable that within a century it was virtually driven to extinction. Now, thankfully, the area is again awash with Tenby Daffodils. It is interesting to note that in his Florica Britannia , Richard Mabey suggests that the origin of the Tenby Daffodil is 'most likely a hardy hybrid between the Lent Lily and an unknown cultivar', but adds, '. . . in remote corners of the Presel Hills there are still a few defiant clumps . . . whose identity cannot be so tidily explained away.'
The plant also continues to thrive in South Devon and the Sussex Weald. So, amongst all the cultivated varieties that will be in flower over the next few months, keep a look out too for the smaller, native daffodil. It is an amazing plant, records showing that it can vary in flowering by up to two months depending upon spring temperatures. But I shall fittingly leave the last words of this article to the first four lines of Wordsworth's famous poem:
wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden Daffodils.
Illustrated by: Paul Swailes
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 91
Back in the days when I owned a television, reading was just an occasional pastime. Nowadays, however, books have succeeded the square box that once dictated where all other living room furniture needed positioning. Soon after becoming an avid reader I discovered, albeit unexpectedly, that I have trends for reading certain literary genres over a period of time before moving onto another subject. At the moment it is travel journals, whether they be undertaken on foot, by train or any other mode of transport. In particular, I am enjoying accounts where an author's log is purely at the disposal of what they experience en route.
It was perhaps for this reason that I found myself writing my book about the Cairn in Ilfracombe in a mode for which I had not initially intended; that is to say a narrative, over the course of twelve months, of all the animals, insects, birds, structures, flowers, plants, trees, people and landscapes I observed. As I mentioned in my last article, I also discovered that the Cairn possessed a history and consequently had the unexpected but pleasurable challenge of intertwining this at various stages of the manuscript.
I am currently reading Robert MacFarlane's book, The Old Ways - A Journey On Foot. In it he also connects the past with the present following tracks, drove roads, sea paths, pilgrim paths, green roads, ridgeways, cartways, causeways, and other trails all of which form vast ancient networks crisscrossing the British Isles and beyond. One of these is a six-mile sea path that crosses the River Crouch connecting the Essex mainland to Foulness Island. Christened The Broomway after the bundle of twigs attached to short poles which once marked out its route, it is known to be at least 600 years old and was, until the construction of a road bridge in the early twentieth century, the only access to the island save by boat. MacFarlane warns that it is not only a tidal path but also Britain's second deadliest path, such is the speed at which the tide comes in. A sudden descent of thick coastal mist can also disorientate walkers, their footsteps misleading them out onto the treacherous mudflats.
On the day of his walk MacFarlane relays what he sees before him: low lying mist; a pale yellow sun announcing its presence on the scene as the mist begins to peter out; a man walking his dog along the shoreline's sea wall, his outline becoming more indistinct the further MacFarlane heads out on The Broomway; and two MOD signs, one reading, 'Warning: The Broomway is Unmarked and Very Hazardous' and the other, 'Warning: Do not Approach or Touch any Object as it may Explode and Kill You.' A risk of death by drowning, suffocation or obliteration? Clearly, then, a path only to be undertaken by the more experienced walker. As MacFarlane treads his course so he reflects on all those who have passed this way before; way beyond the sea path's first known record in 1419 to a period when, not only was the River Crouch ebbed into non-existence, but a time, as he puts it, when "much of the North Sea [had] drained away [so that] what is now a sea [was] dry land . . the east coast of England [being] continuous with north west Germany, Denmark and Holland." He goes on to reflect upon an area known as Doggerland which would have been exposed around 12,000 years ago during that last Ice Age. He tells how Doggerland's later inhabitants would have easily noticed from one generation to the next, a subtle rise in the sea level as increasing temperatures caused the ice to melt; enough time, thankfully, for them to head for safer shores. Eventually just Dogger Bank, an upland area of Doggerland and an area familiar from shipping forecasts, became an isolated headland before it too was swallowed by rising sea levels around 5000BC.
MacFarlane compares our ancestor's transportation by foot, together with their belongings and livestock, as "one of the earliest substantial human responses to climate change." In other words, it is not a new phenomenon. Ironic then that I should make no reference to climate change in my book despite June 2007, one of the months of my year's observation, experiencing the highest rainfall on record and being followed by a Met Office announcement that the wettest early spring had been recorded.
As my accounts recalled, the precipitated onslaught upon the Cairn spawned a dank, soppy woodland that looked exceedingly sorry for itself; yet at no point did I explain this in phenological terms. Phenology, the study of how plant and animal life are influenced by seasonal variations in the climate, was not, along with other climatic studies and reports of the day, as much in the public domain in 2007. These days climate change is constantly in the media especially when another meteorological record is broken. This summer alone saw the hottest ever day being recorded on the 25th July when Cambridge University Botanical Garden registered 38.7 degrees centigrade [101.7 degrees Fahrenheit.] Yet it was a summer of undulating peaks and troughs for daytime temperatures, the peaks never remaining high for the required length of time to justify a heatwave.
This was in complete contrast to 2018 when soaring temperatures were sustained for long periods, something that had both negative and positive outcomes upon our plant and animal life. For example, one unexpected benefit occurred in the shallow lakes of the Wigan Flash Nature Reserve. Often plagued by algae stripping oxygen from the lakes' water, warmer than average summers ironically normally encourage algae levels to increase. However, the prolonged heatwave of 2018 spurred on large aquatic plants and in so doing crowded out the sunlight before algic blooms could appear. By increasing the lakes' oxygen levels, water fleas were able to thrive that became a valuable food source for fish such as perch and rudd which in turn provided nutrition for birds like common tern. Meanwhile winged insects flourished in the rising temperatures so providing a bumper crop of food for birds like swifts and swallows. Reptiles such as lizards and adders also benefited from insects at ground level.
But there were losers too. For example, Britain's rarer alpine plants are especially adapted to live and function in our cooler conditions; in essence, they don't 'do' heatwaves. Likewise, some of our winged insects only live at high altitude and are therefore dependent upon a cooler climate even in summer. What's more, many winged insects need a particular plant for their larvae to feed on; if their host plant was one to have suffered at the hands of last year's heatwave, then their larvae numbers will have reduced. Meanwhile, intense and prolonged moorland fires such as those seen near Manchester ravaged vegetation. This in turn destroyed seed banks, allowing the newly burnt areas to be colonised by tough, fast growing species that are easily dispersed. Rosebay Willowherb was one of the prime beneficiaries.
With a British name derived from its flowers having a passing resemblance to the wild rose and its leaves to that of the bay tree, it was also christened fireweed following the Fire of London where it appeared everywhere. Thriving as it does on disturbed land, it was a nationally rare plant until the coming of the railway created embankments and cuttings. In southeast England it is also known as bombweed, becoming a familiar site after the Blitz; London has indelible memories of drifts of the plant appearing in bombsites and craters, the plant's spiral shape becoming synonymous with the Capital's revival as it went about colonising and bringing new life to the sacred earth. It was no wonder it became London County Council's County Flower.
Being the first plant to colonise barren areas with very little competition it can today be found on wasteland, roadside verges, heathland, moorland, beside railways and well-drained rivers and in woodland clearings. Perhaps regarded by some as a garden weed, it is important to remember that the re-establishment of vegetation is crucial in the recovery time of disturbed land; Rosebay Willowherb's early arrival therefore plays a pivotal role. It is for this reason that it is purposefully planted where oil spillages have occurred; once established, new vegetation will grow underneath. Each plant can produce up to 80,000 hairy, fluffy seeds that are especially adapted for colonising, their tiny cottony 'parachutes' dispersing across long distances upon the slightest of breezes.
Watching these seeds in flight at the end of autumn always makes me think ahead to Christmas - and in particular the cards with well wishes that will travel many miles to re-establish contact, albeit maybe just yearly, between family, friends and acquaintances. It is easy to regard writing Christmas cards as a laborious prerequisite of the festival period. But try to remember the happiness it will give the recipient - just like the joy you experience with each card you receive.
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 90
On a hot morning in March 1982, a middle-aged man wandered into St George's Park cricket ground in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. With time on his hands before the start of play, he decided to pay a visit to the ground's Secretary in order to introduce himself. An official duly led him to an office where a large, affable man extended a huge right hand.
"Welcome," he said. "I'm Tom Dean." The visitor stood visibly shocked and unable to speak, realising he had just shaken the hand of the Hampshire bowler who in 1948 had sent the bails of his wicket flying in all directions. Out without scoring, having faced only four deliveries from Dean, the match would prove to be the visitor's last chance of proving his capability of playing at county level and with it his ambition of playing for England. Worse still, he would no longer be able to fulfil his dream of walking into a Test Match arena after the fall of the first wicket to bat alongside his idol, Dennis Compton. Instead, he did the next best thing and aspired to make a career out of writing about the sport he loved. Which is just what Ian Wooldridge duly achieved, eventually becoming the Daily Mail's main sports columnist for many years.
When Wooldridge relayed to Dean the story of how that fourth delivery had subsequently changed the path of his life, the now portly secretary replied, "For the better, I hope."
Wooldridge considers Dean's reply in the last chapter of his book, Travelling Reserve. Having reflected upon this he concludes, without any doubt, that he is indebted to the off stump that Dean flattened on Southampton's County Ground in 1948; and it is not just the thrilling cricket matches and other sporting events that he mentions. He also makes reference to the beautiful scenery he encountered whilst globetrotting the world on cricket tours.
Another great example of how life is all about making the best of your circumstances can be found when one considers the events that shaped the life of another cricket writer and more widely known commentator, Henry Blofeld. Born in 1939, he had an exceptional career as a schoolboy cricketer. Appointed captain of the Eton XI in his final year, a prosperous cricket career beckoned, until, that was, he was hit by a bus whilst riding a bicycle which left him unconscious for 28 days. Although he went on to play first class cricket for Cambridge University, plus a solitary game for Norfolk in the Minor Counties League, the accident affected his playing ability, and in so doing, shattered any chances of playing for a team in the County Championship, let alone for his country.
So, after a spell in banking which was not to his liking, he drifted into journalism and a career that would lead to him becoming a composite member of the Test Match Special [TMS] team from 1972 until his retirement in 2017. "Blowers's" exit from the TMS box heralded the last of his breed; commentators who, despite lacking experience at cricket's highest level, had that journalistic gift to paint a picture so that the radio listener felt they were actually at the ground. One can argue perhaps that as the 21st century has progressed, fewer TMS listeners want to know when the first pigeon of the day has flown past the commentary box, whether the Pennines are covered in mist and at what time a red London bus passes through St John's Wood. Blowers also used to provide a running commentary on buses running alongside the Trent Bridge ground, something that led to Nottingham City Council naming a brand new Bio-Gas powered double-decker after him. The Council presented it to Blowers on the morning of his final Test commentary at the ground.
Today, the TMS commentary team are all ex-players, each one giving their expert opinion and analyses which, along with its more eccentric commentators, I still enjoy. But I do miss the wider, artistic portrayal of events occurring on the periphery, especially as I do not have television; and it is here that I draw an analogy between Ian Wooldridge, Henry Blofeld and myself; for it is ten years since the publication of my book, A Doorstep Discovery, Twelve Months on the Cairn in Ilfracombe.
The book's inception came from a procession of preceding events. Having moved to the Sterridge Valley on a temporary basis, my partner and I found a permanent home in Score Valley on the western fringe of Ilfracombe. With a hillside woodland on our doorstep, the Cairn became a regular venue for walking our two black Labradors; and with so many paths to choose from, no two walks were ever the same. As the seasons passed, so we came to meet and know many other canine owners who frequented the Cairn. In time, conversations steered towards the setting up of a conservation group. We were asked if we would be interested in joining. I considered the notion before a voice, rising up from my deep and distant London background proclaimed, "Me, a conservationist? You're 'aving a larf!" - and with that we both duly signed up, albeit to make up the numbers in the hope of enabling the new group to source much needed funds. In any case, I reasoned, I have a condition that prevents me from carrying out physical exertion, namely epilepsy; letting my body overheat whilst undertaking conservation work would be a recipe for a seizure.
Illustrated by: Paul Swailes
The problem with me, however, is that I have never been one to sit on the sidelines. I also felt a fraud, knowing full well I was by now writing about the countryside in a certain bi-monthly newsletter! But more significantly, I felt as though I had let my epilepsy get the upper hand - something I rarely allow. But in what way could I be of use? My answer came literally in the post courtesy, ironically, of the Cairn Conservation Carers' [CCC] quarterly Work Party Activity Diary. Usually listing just the dates for planned conservation work, it also included a day for on-site training in how to survey flora and fauna. I perused the idea and considered that this just might be a task I could undertake without necessarily breaking into a sweat. Before I knew it, I was on the CCC's committee and had my own allocated area over which I was to record my observations on a monthly basis. From this a deeper fascination of nature developed and with it a desire to learn more about the trees, wildflowers and wildlife on my patch. All the while I was speaking to increasing numbers of people who walked the woodland, open grassland and vantage points whilst listening to their tales about the Cairn's history.
By now I had taken a career break to recuperate from the tragic deaths of my parents, only days apart. With their departure from this earth, ahead of their allotted three-score-years-and-ten, I felt sure I heard their voices in the leaves as they were lifted from the branches by autumnal breezes saying, "There is no time like the present, live for today." As autumn faded into winter, I recalled how as a child I would only ever ask Santa Claus to leave on Christmas morning enough writing pads and pens to last until his next visit, for I loved to write stories. In adulthood I fostered the dream that, perhaps one day, I would have a book published. So, just like Ian Wooldridge and Henry Blofeld, I decided that as I could not physically get involved in the CCC's practical conservation work, I would do the next best thing. I would write about it.
So it was that between the summer of 2006 and that of the following year, I wrote all about what I saw and heard upon the Cairn, adding history and folklore to the host of wildlife information. It was a challenging yet enjoyable twelve months, being at the disposal of nature and only able to write about the flora and fauna I happened to come across. Two years in its collation of information, writing and eventual publication following this, the book was launched in 2009 at Ilfracombe Museum. One of the proudest days of my life.
Yet there was to be an unexpected reward. The launch was attended by two dear friends, John and George. A week or so after the event, I received a telephone call from John. A Yorkshire man through and through, I was certain, as one might expect, to always get a direct and honest opinion on any matter he discussed. He began the conversation by stating, "I've read your book from cover to cover."
"And?" I wondered to myself, dreading his assessment.
"Now as you are fully aware, I am an amputee confined to a wheelchair. So I will never manage to get on that Cairn by you." I could tell by the tone in his voice he was intent on coming straight to the point.
"But Steve," he continued, " I feel like I have taken every step with you. I now know that Cairn as well as you and everyone else who has walked its many paths."
His opinion gave me such a deep sense of satisfaction. For no matter what enjoyment the book may have given to all its other readers, to know I provided so much pleasure to a man who could no longer walk and, more significantly, had managed to successfully paint a picture of the Cairn for him, made every painstaking hour of effort to get the book published worthwhile.
John sadly passed away this year at the age of 83 and is now reunited with his partner of 59 years - George, who died three years ago at the age of 90. I should like to dedicate this article to them both.
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 89
An old college friend has recently decided to come off Facebook. He says he feels much better for it because, living alone as he does, he was starting to replay in his mind all the negative news feeds and pictures of animal cruelty that appeared on his page. He told me he had also come to dislike texting, regarding it as the only way people seem to now communicate with each other. What's more, much as he admitted to being dependent upon social media to converse with people, he had suddenly come to realise that using it was just making him feel more lonely. From now on, he told me, he would make more of an effort to pick up the telephone and speak to people.
I agree with his opinion about social media up to a point. Although I have a Facebook page, I have not used it for many years and only really set it up initially when I published a book; and, much more significantly, I know people personally who have been especially susceptible to its negative impact. For example, a friend's daughter was the victim of cyber bullying on social media after the bullying issue had been resolved in the classroom and playground. But one must not generalise, especially as I have another friend for whom his Facebook page is an invaluable tool for keeping in touch with the people he knows. I have written about this friend in previous articles, one whom I have had the fortune of knowing for nearly fifty years. We met in the first year of infant school whilst living in Cheam, then a quiet suburb of southwest London. We were blessed with having Nonsuch Park on our doorstep, a 250-acre space that is the last surviving part of the Little Park of Nonsuch, once a deer hunting park established by Henry VIII to surround the former Nonsuch Palace which he began having built in 1538.
The park provided everything we needed so that no consecutive days were ever the same. Whilst on one day we might explore the paths of the elm woodland that ran the peak of the park's eastern border, on another day we would cycle to the woodland on its western boundary and ride daredevil stunts in the deep, disused clay pit which was christened Devil's Dyke. Other times we would inspect the small clusters of tall trees dotted about the park which, once inside, we would create imaginary secret camps. Much enjoyment was also gained cycling the pathways that connected The Avenue or, as it was commonly known by local children, Conker Alley. At this time of year my friend and I spent many hours hurling sticks high in our attempts to knock loose the largest conker shells that hung from The Avenue's double-breasted line of horse chestnut trees; in readiness, of course, for pitting our conkers' robustness and stamina against those of our school friends when we returned for the autumn term.
All but the eastern woodland are still there, this being a victim to Dutch Elm Disease. Yet despite their demise, the hilltop along which the woodland ran still holds a special memory. For every Saturday my friend and I would ride up to the woodland edge and then look eastwards across the suburban valley to a high row of semi-detached houses that ran along the appropriately named Ridge Road. Beyond these rooftops, two grey monsters, or so they seemed to us, stretched into the sky, these being the Telecom Tower [then the Post Office Tower] and Tower 42 [then the National Westminster Tower and, standing at 183 meters or 600 feet, the then tallest building in London.] Having taken in the view, we would head off and cycle along the roads and back alleys of suburbia, arriving at Ridge Road about an hour later so that we could look back at the woodland edge from where we had set off.
Our journey was always interjected with a break on a bridge that crossed the Pyl Brook, a small stream that rises in Sutton Common, flows along Cheam's north eastern boundary and eventually joins the Beverley Brook in New Malden from whence it flows northwards into the Thames. Bearing mind that the Pyl Brook was the only stream in our vicinity and that it spent most of its course underground, one can perhaps identify with my amusement at watching this fast flowing water; not to mention the fun we had running along the path as we raced against the sticks we had thrown into the Brook where it emerged and watched as they disappeared out of site where it flowed underground once more.
Trees, flowing water and distant views; small, yet at the same time significant aspects of my childhood that now allow me to recall happy memories. Interestingly, my friend has a passion for just one of these three; for he still adores his views. But for him, they need to be urban; and it is in this capacity, albeit indirectly, that Facebook gives him the opportunity to post to friends and family the accounts of his trips into the capital. They include ventures down side streets and squares that are tucked away, strolls through busy markets, observations on architecture and feedback on visits to churches and museums. For him his Facebook page is, in effect, a lifeline and one from which he reaps great reward from reading the positive feedback he gets.
The Bishop's Palace, Wells
But for me, I still need the connection with all three. It was interesting therefore that our last location in North Devon, Yelland, was relatively devoid of trees. So I was pleased to discover that on moving to Weston-super-Mare there ran along its hillside the densely packed trees of Weston Woods. Sadly, its rocky ground played havoc on our Labrador's paws. Not only that, I found I was always aware, audibly if not psychologically, that the hectic hurley burley of the town was very close at hand. This has meant having to walk the dogs out of town - in countryside that is on the whole devoid of woodland, clear running waterways and undulation. Thank goodness then for technology where online videos abound on any rural subject I may choose to watch - not that it necessarily be in the countryside. For in recent weeks I have watched with fascination the pen sat on her nest thanks to the Bishop's Palace Swancam situated on the bank beside the moat in Wells. To date, one cygnet has hatched and she is sat on two further eggs.
However, I still feel strongly there is a place for books and periodicals. For example, a mindful study of one of the pictures in Halsgrove's books on Exmoor immediately relocates me back to the fourteen years we spent living in North Devon, a place where woodlands, streams and vantage points were never too far away, if not a feature when looking out from one of the windows of the property in which we were living. One dear friend who lives in North Devon now sends us the Exmoor Magazine each quarter. Like the books, I find that the magazine's pictures of Exmoor's flora, fauna and panoramic vistas, when studied mindfully, help me to reconnect with its unique countryside so that I am almost metamorphosed into the picture. It isn't of course like having Exmoor on my doorstep. But it certainly helps.
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 88
Henry Olonga was the first black cricketer to represent Zimbabwe. Born in 1976, he is also the youngest player to represent his country having made his international debut at the age of eighteen. An effective bowler who could take a cluster of wickets at key times, he spearheaded Zimbabwe's first overseas Test victory. But he is best remembered for the brave protest he made alongside his team mate Andy Flower when they wore black armbands in a World Cup match, 'mourning the death of democracy in our beloved Zimbabwe'. The act not only ended Olonga's Test career; a warrant was also issued for his arrest on charges of treason, an act that forced him to go into hiding for a short time. These days he is a cricket commentator and singer.
Less well-known is his choice for a favourite ground. Some may regard it as surprising, considering the innumerable amphitheaters in which he would have played around the globe during his cricketing career. Capetown's Newlands Cricket Ground would be one such example, boasting as it does Table Mountain for a dramatic backdrop. Instead, Olonga elects an English cricket ground in a setting with an attribute, though not as imposing as Table Mountain, is still to the eye just as stunning. Indeed, whilst Table Mountain stands at 1085 metres (3559 feet), this feature is a mere 62 metres (203 feet) in height. But without its placement within the vista, one can be certain the ground would not be Olonga's favourite venue - especially as he only ever played there once in a game where his performance was indifferent at best. But this did not stop him picking Worcester's New Road cricket ground, where play is overseen by its beautiful cathedral.
Olonga described it as one of the prettiest grounds he had ever seen. It was in his view the only major sports arena that had not quite graduated from being a little village venue, describing the cathedral as the cherry on the cake. No doubt unaware, his anomaly could not have been more appropriate. For Worcestershire's home ground is renowned throughout the cricketing world for its Ladies' Pavilion; an institution revered wherever the game is played and with a reputation that causes Worcestershire's supporters, wherever they are, to be asked, "Do the ladies still serve their afternoon teas with their delicious homemade cakes?"
Olonga was clearly captured by the ground's surrounding views, its location by the River Severn, its warm and friendly atmosphere, its cheerful brews and homemade sponges, scones and pastries; all facets that led Olonga to portray the ground as quintessentially English.
It is an interesting definition especially when one considers his use of the term quintessentially, for it is a word used to emphasise what is the most typical example of something. So why did he choose such a description? Maybe the answer is in his earlier representation of it being like a little village venue.
So just for the moment let's lift the pitch up from New Road and lower it into an English rural valley. Imagine that on one side of the ground runs a country lane, beyond which is a steep woodland of beech and oak trees. It is June and they are now in full leaf.
On the other side of the pitch runs not the River Severn but a wide stream with waters that can be heard tumbling over rocks and boulders all the while a match is being played. Beyond the river the hillside opposite rises more gently. It is speckled with cottages displaying either slate or thatch roofs.
On the peak of the hill stands not a cathedral but a Norman church, its square tower overseeing the day to day movements of its parishioners whilst at the foot of the valley is the village's lone pub, The Bat and Ball.
Poplar trees line the far end of the ground whilst the end nearest the pub sites the pavilion and scoreboard. The umpires hear the church bell chime one o'clock, allow the bowler to complete his over, consult, check the pavilion's clock against that of the church and call "Time, gentlemen".
Rather than the presence of Worcester's world-famous tea ladies, a couple of villagers are serving a selection of ham salad, cheese and pickle or egg and cress sandwiches, followed by fresh strawberries, scones and, of course, tea. Now that's what I call quintessentially English! Enjoy the summer.
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 87
I remember as a young child how the month of May was pivotal in our football-crazy family, for it held a Saturday with a three o'clock whistle that heralded the kick-off of the FA Cup Final. It was a match that back then was a rarity in being televised live and having a build-up, albeit interrupted, on either Grandstand or World of Sport.
Oh, how times have changed! Now, football's season eats well into that of cricket. Likewise, county cricket has expanded its span of play. This year the County Championship will start just after this issue goes to press, on the 5th April, and finish on the 26th September. Like England's international calendar, the powers-that-be are also trying to pack in as many county matches as is realistically possible; a good job, therefore, that teams no longer play on uncovered pitches which could be unpredictable even during cricket's native summer.
The other day, whilst contemplating these thoughts, I was reminded of the story of Alfred Lyttleton. Born in 1857 he was later to become a member of Parliament for the Liberal Unionist Party and brother-in-law to the Prime Minster, Arthur Balfour. The youngest of eight brothers, Lyttleton was born into a family that excelled at sports. However, he would go on to supersede them by becoming arguably one of the most prominent sportsmen of his time. Among other sports, he became a distinguished footballer and cricketer, playing for England in both arenas. But it was whilst competing in a cricket club match against Bethnal Green Tradesmen that, having made 89 runs, a blow from a ball caused an internal abscess. Recuperating in his hospital bed after an emergency operation, he was visited by one of his brothers. "Don't let them make too much fuss of the cricket ball," Lyttleton whispered into his brother's ear. "Just a piece of bad luck."
One cannot compare Lyttleton's take on the incident to that of a lady who tripped and fell whilst shopping in her local town centre. Thankfully able to get herself up and walk back to her car she was soon, however, experiencing severe leg pain and was barely able to weight bear. Fearing the worst, she decided to take herself to the A&E department, but not before taking a detour so as to return to the scene of her fall. Unsure though she was as to whether a raised surface had actually caused her to trip, she hoped all the same to find as much so she could take a photograph and subsequently sue the council for damages and get compensation. Again, how times have changed.
Indeed, when I entered the workforce in the 1980's the term "risk assessment" was far from common knowledge. That's not to denounce Health and Safety, for life in the working environment is far safer than it was once. I may be going back in time, but I should not have wanted, for example, to have been a navvy involved in the construction of the Great Western Railway network, or any other line come to that. Severe injuries and fatalities are well documented. However, whilst such facts justify the safer environment in which we live, others would argue that Health and Safety have gone too far; and it is here that I draw a parallel with trees.
I tend to place the lifespan of trees into one of three categories. There are those that are felled for a useful purpose; for example, for timber or for the creation of copses or for natural regeneration or, arguably, the provision of housing. Then there are those that are taken out as a result of being on land used by the general public and deemed dangerous by risk assessment. To what extent the tree may be unsafe is often open to debate; some will argue that the decision maker is being over cautious for fear of an accident and subsequent costly compensation. Finally, there are trees, usually on private land, that are allowed to live out their natural lifespan. In their twilight years, such trees encounter storms that will snap off a few more branches and create in the process a wizen appearance far removed from the tree's attractive and seemingly symmetrical outline that it once boasted. Bored from the inside out by either beetles, wasps or moths, its trunk eventually lacks the strength to hold up its outer carcass and caves in. Insects and natural degeneration then ensure that the tree returns to the soil from which it once grew.
So, as spring progresses and our deciduous trees come into leaf once more, be sure to give reverence to the lone naked and crooked tree in the field for it is doing its bit for the natural environment. Indeed, through its death it is providing new life. Happy Easter.
Illustrations: Paul Swailes
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 86
It seems to me there is a wide range of opinion and sentiment about the period following Christmas and New Year. Some people literally experience post-Christmas blues, their remedy a planned outing or social gathering in January in order to prevent a come down from the adrenalin of non-stop celebrations. For others, the cessation of seemingly endless socialising brings a sense of relief. Likewise, when I spoke to my nephew between Christmas and New Year he, too, said he would be glad when it was all over, in his case so he could get back to a normal work routine. Meanwhile, a work colleague justified her negative outlook on the year's early months by stressing how the days can be cold, the trees are still bare, there is no colour on show and the hours of light remain short.
Although I cannot deny any of these facts, I did feel the need to clarify my colleague's use of the word 'remain' in relation to her last point. Yes, at this time of year the hours of daylight are indeed outstripped by the hours of darkness. But the length of each does not remain the same from one day to the next. Indeed, as I compose this article, the clock on the mantelpiece has just struck half past four and I am still able to write this article in natural daylight. [Yes, I still do my first draft by hand; I feel it allows me to truly express my thoughts.] Yet it is only nine days since the winter solstice; and by the time this newsletter is dispatched, the sun will be setting roughly an hour later [either side of five o'clock, depending on where you live] than it did on the 21st of December. Fair enough, we are still a long way off from those long summer evenings - but at least we are heading in the right direction.
What's more, for those of you who experience symptoms of Seasonal Adjustment Disorder at whatever level, here are some other little nuggets of comfort to help you during the months of late winter and very early spring.
Whilst above ground all may seem lifeless, beneath the earth out of sight and out of mind our soil is far from asleep - and has in fact been active all winter even at temperatures well below freezing. It is worth noting that a considerable breakdown of plant material fertilizers and manure occurs naturally over winter causing essential gases to be released. How much is broken down then affects levels of phosphorous and carbon available for spring growth. The level of gas released is also dependent on the temperature of the soil, making insulation, courtesy of ground cover, a key player in the process. This can be provided by grass, perennial plant life, fallen leaves, a blanket of snow or frost.
Regarding the last of these, the greenery you see around you in winter [it's there - you just need to look for it] is no fool to frost for it is fully aware that soil can freeze up to several feet below the surface in extreme conditions. To combat this grasses and plants send roots deep under-ground - roots that throughout winter will natural discharge much needed water into the soil. Alongside the roots live many soil dwelling animals which have burrowed deep enough to avoid the frost level. These include insects, snakes, frogs, and worms. Some hibernate whilst others live on food previously stored up in preparation for the colder days ahead.
Such cold days can still be prevalent as winter gives way to the embryo of spring. But in sheltered parts wild flora including moss-loving sorrel, violets, primroses and colt's foot are free to flower. Blackthorn, too, makes its preliminary appearance, a contrast to the dead auburn beech leaves that still cling to their branches. It really is a case of studying your rural surroundings for the work of very early spring is indeed minute. There is a swelling of buds and a sprouting of seedlings as the fabric of every leaf case is revealed. Notice too how the trees take on a subtle inflorescence: a red haze over the elms; a thickening of the patterns sketched upon the branches of the silver birches; a swagger of yellow male catkins upon the hazel; a ruby glow over the larches; a russet shine upon the alder's catkins; the ash preparing bunches of purple flower buds within their black cases. All timid beginnings. Yet heralding so much more to come.
Illustrations: Paul Swailes
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 85
In his book The Old Country, Jack Hargreaves OBE [1911-1994] makes reference to the gifted craftsmanship of his Great Uncle Harry. Using wood from branches of tall box trees, he created polished spill-jars, one of which he especially made for his grandfather who then expected it to be refilled by his young grandson whenever he was around. He would watch his grandfather fold one of the long spills, wooden firelighters, before poking it into the fire to light his pipe from the pages of Farm, Field and Fireside. His Great Uncle Harry also used boxwood to make block-planes to sharpen his self-made rulers, squares and chisel handles, all previously designed for both himself and others. Having no children, he promised Hargreaves that all of his tools kept safely in a chest, would one day come to him. Unfortunately, they were instead taken by his Uncle Willie when he emigrated to America, never to be seen again; unlike his Uncle Holmes who, Hargreaves is keen to emphasise, immediately returned to England from Canada on the outbreak of World War One to sign up. He was to die just after dawn on the first day of the Battle of the Somme - his first day in action. His fate, like those of millions of others, will be especially poignant this year when on the 11th November we commemorate the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day.
Hargreaves's grandfather was never a man intent on doing battle with his surrounding countryside; moreover, he felt himself to be in a mutual, respectful partnership with nature. For example, if a tree stood in the way of barbed wire fencing being erected to keep cattle out of a hedge, then two extra posts had to be knocked into place to go around it. No nails in trees! On one occasion, a foxglove seeded itself in a bank between a hedge. When a drought season persisted, his grandfather carried a bucket of water from the yard to soak it every day for a fortnight.
Hargreaves recollects his grandfather's love of foxgloves, whose true home he felt was in the woodland; for it seems that if ever there was a true man of the woods, then his grandfather was undoubtedly so. Whether it be the woods or the copses upon his beloved farmland, each was tended with his loving care. A close eye was kept over the woodlands, his grandfather noting where tall trees dropped their acorns or seeds. Once safe in the knowledge that an heir apparent had successfully germinated, each tall tree still in its prime, would be felled - an act which Hargreaves argues, 'nowadays a forester would be roundly abused for . . . especially by those who feel trees exist simply for the pleasure of the uncultivated eye'. For in his grandfather's era, these native woodlands were the raw material upon which industry depended. The largest branches went to the boat builders and wagon wrights whilst the lesser limbs went to coach builders, the makers of gun-carriages, river barges, locks, barns and hatches and the bridge builders. Any unwanted
significant branches were used by his grandfather to make decent fencing posts whilst smaller ones became his raw material for charcoal burners.
Copse wood too served a multitude of uses. Every copse would be closely monitored, the designated species of each plantation allowed to grow for anything between eight to ten years before being harvested. In autumn, an array of craftsmen and women would come to survey the trees that were to be felled that winter, his grandfather making bargains with each one as to how much they could clear. The broom-maker would fell the young feathery birches whilst down by the river the basket-maker would annually take as much willow as was available. Another autumnal visitor would be the man who produced chestnut pale fencing and occasionally a clog-maker would come if the alder had grown to a significant height. One must not forget the box trees for Great Uncle Harry, planted at the corner of each copse to get the best of the light available.
But the best annual deal was done with Mr. Bowman [still a common name in parts of the country where families had trade in wood] who came with his family to source the hazel. They were experts in all things for which hazel could be used and, more than any other tradesman, knew the woods meticulously - even their youngest could recognise with ease the calls of the woodland birds. Huntsman consulted Mr. Bowman on the foxes' movements whilst the keeper would source his knowledge on the pheasants' nests. His grandfather's great-great-grandfather had known Mr. Bowman's great-great grandfather. It was no wonder then that his grandfather assumed the annual visits would continue and that a descendant of Hargreaves would be walking the woods with a descendant of Mr. Bowman.
It was not to be. The first blow came - literally - when Portuguese men arrived to begin chopping down his grandfather's beloved trees; for Portugal was the only country to declare on the Allied side at the start of World War One. Suddenly, with our country needing wood like it had never needed it before, the Portuguese woodmen were brought over. Hargreaves recalls them turning up in his district a year after the declaration of World War One - specialist men who were needed, of course, because so many of our own young men had gone into battle. Hargreaves chillingly recalls how he knew of a little rural village close by with a war memorial that records the death of all its young men in one day.
"Trees, and trees, and trees were felled," Hargreaves laments. His grandfather looked on, knowing that his old system could never be restored. Mr. Bowman and all the other craftsmen and women would not be back next autumn. Indeed, they would never return. Hargreaves considers whether this was the reason his grandfather drank. It is an interesting concept, the notion of somebody turning to alcohol not as a direct result of military combat but instead through an indirect consequence that war can impose on someone. No longer would new life come about through the drops of acorns and seeds on his grandfather's land.
Hargreaves's grandfather did, however, console himself on one matter. In his era, every farm had on its land between two and three walnut trees. Each one in turn provided a crop which, especially when at full maturity, provided a significant income from gunsmiths and furniture makers. However, his grandfather's philosophy was that a man should in his own lifetime plant one walnut tree, not for his own selfish tax benefits, but for the pleasure of his grandchildren. So, having surveyed the demise of his woods and his copses but seeking pleasure from the arrival of a young Hargreaves on the scene, he planted his final walnut tree.
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 84
Jack Hargreaves, OBE, was a writer, broadcaster and presenter who, especially during his later career as a television personality as well as through the books he wrote, set out to rebalance urban assumptions about the character and function of the countryside. For example, as I explained in my last article, he used this medium as a means to dispel notions that Friesian cattle have always been a key feature upon any British rural outlook. He also went as far as to question the need for their importation across the North Sea to begin with. But more of that later. What one cannot doubt, however, was his skill in using his soft and gentle voice to help members of his metropolitan audience appreciate the value and importance of the countryside beyond their 'city walls' - a concept not all urbanites were able to grasp. Not that it was their fault; but more of that later, too.
Hargreaves was born in London in 1911 and, at the age of seventeen, went to study at the Royal Veterinary College at London University. He left, however, to earn a living as a copy writer, journalist and scriptwriter for radio and films. By the late 1930's he had already established the reputation for his pioneering approaches to radio broadcasting, one that motivated him to continue a media career at the cessation of World War Two. He then began living at a variety of addresses in central London and by the late 1940's was moving between any one of these city homes and a caravan in a field on the bank of the River Kennett at Midgham in Berkshire. From here he later moved to a cottage by the River Winterbourne in Bagnor, also in Berkshire, then onto Lower Pennington and then Walhampton, near Lymington, and then to Minstead and East Boldre in the New Forest. His final years were spent at Raven Cottage near Belchalwell, in Dorset.
Hargreaves loved angling, a passion that led to him writing his first book, Fishing for a Year. In it he argued for regression - the pursuit of different fish, in separate places and using various methods throughout the licence seasons. He was bemused at the way fishing had for sociological, technical, financial and population-based reasons become as he saw it tribalised by class and species. "What do they know of fishing," he wrote. "Who know of only one fish and one way to fish him?"
The 1950's was a fruitful time for Hargreaves, a decade in which he became editor of Lilliput and Picture Post as well as being recruited to the National Farmers Union where he went on to organise and develop its Information Department and found the British Farmer Magazine. In 1959 he was headhunted to the new ITV franchised company, Southern Television, taking on the dual roles of Programme Director and Assistant Controller. He would later go on to be a major player in the orchestration of ITV. The year 1949 also saw his television debut when he presented his own television series Gone Fishing. Apprehensive at talking on live television to an audience of millions, albeit on a subject he was passionate about, his director George Egan reassured him that each of these audiences would likely be two or three people sat comfortably in their living room with their pet dog. It was the best advise Hargreaves could have been given deciding as he did to aim his conversation at such mini audiences for the rest of his career.
In the early 1960's and now living near Lymington, Hargreaves began recording the first in a series of programmes for which he was about to become a household name - Out of Town. The first series aired in 1963 and ran until the demise of Southern Television in 1981. It took him little time to grasp how television would work best as a way for him to spread his convincing yet logical message regarding the loss of man's connection with the land. Yet for some people, and urbanites in particular, watching his programme was not about having a need to take on board his rural views. it was merely an opportunity to be calmed by listening to his relaxing, gentle voice. Take my grandmother, for example. A woman who through a tough upbringing was, shall I say, somewhat hard round the edges. I recall one poignant occasion when I was with her in the lounge of my grandparents' townhouse in Walworth. Whilst Nan, still in her checked housecoat, sat in the armchair opposite the television, I instead chose to sit on the poof beside her. No sooner had the programme begun when I noticed those facial lines of stress, anger and bitterness fade away.
"Eze got a lovely voice, that man," Nan commented, her remark directed at me but still looking directly at the screen. "I could listen to 'im all day".
But I guess it was not just about his voice; the programme also allowed her a glimpse into a world that most London working class housewives never saw - except for a two-week working holiday in Marden in Kent doing hop picking.
Between 1966 and 1981 Hargreaves co-presented the children's television programme How, alongside Fred Dinenage, Bunty James and Jon Miller. It was during this period between 1971 and 1973, he was an independent member of the Defence Lands Committee where he made a key contribution to the Nugent Report. This reviewed all the land held by the armed forces and led Hargreaves to conclude that, whilst it might be preferable to use the land for agricultural purposes, military exercises were arguably less harmful to the land than the third option of opening it up to the public for recreational use. To get his point across Hargreaves used his media position to remind his audiences that the countryside was a vital chain in the food process. He was awarded an OBE for his valuable input whilst on the committee.
After the demise of Southern Television in 1981 he teamed up with Lacewing Productions and was commissioned by Channel Four to make a similar series to Out of Town. As a result, sixty Old Country episodes were broadcast between 1983 and 1985. In 1985 he then made twenty-seven new Out of Town episodes for video release. Using footage from original cut film inserts that he had brought form Southern Television, Hargreaves sat in his front room at Raven Cottage and did new voiceovers. These were then added to clips of him introducing each item from his real series was shot in a studio shed. These episodes were late distributed for DVD release.
In 1987 he had published a further book, Out of Town: A Life Relived on Television, followed by The Old Country , and The New Forest: A Portrait in Colour . It was in the first of these three books that Hargreaves enlightened his readership to Friesian cattle. Now widespread upon the rural landscape, he pointed out that they were unknown in this country when he was born, the oldest herd line he knew not being founded until 1921. Like most other places, it was not until after the Second World War that they become commonplace in his local area, in his case replacing the Shorthorn cattle which he felt were just as useful and productive. He likened the Friesian's take over to a genocidal sweep as of the Greek population in Asia Minor, and was tickled as how Friesians would be seen in the backdrop of films or television serials of Thomas Hardy stories. Assuming as he did that the producers had not bothered to do their homework and so source the appropriate cattle species, it frustrated him that not one of the characters would have known what a Friesian looked like; and who can blame him? For this was a man who throughout his life was passionate about the countryside.
Hargreaves died on the 15th March 1994, his ashes being spread on Burrow Hill above his beloved last home Raven Cottage.
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 83
Frisii is a coastal region along the eastern corner of the North Sea in what today is mostly a large part of the Netherlands, including modern Friesland and smaller parts of northern Germany. As far back as Roman times the Frisii people were renowned for their care and breeding of cattle, preferring to pay a tax of ox hides and ox horns to the Roman government rather than fulfil any military obligations. This was in contrast to other tribes who were less inclined towards pastoral pursuits and saw it as a duty to provide, at the very least, armouries to the Roman army.
According to historical records, the Frisii cattle were pure white and light. This, however, would alter around 100BC when a group of people residing in Hesse [now a Germanic state] were displaced and migrated with their black cattle to the shores of the North Sea close to the Frisii tribe. Although there is no historical confirmation, it is highly likely that cross breeding occurred and led to the foundation of the current black and white Holstein-Friesian breed.
It is worth pointing out that today Holstein generally refers to animals traced from North American blood lines; with the development of the New World, markets began to develop for milk in both North and South America so that dairy breeders turned to the Netherlands for their livestock. Friesian on the other hand denotes animals of traditional European ancestry.
I made reference to black and white Friesians in my last article whilst recalling a summer's evening when I stood upon Cairn Top, having witnessed two separate herds standing within fields running the two hillcrests of Slade Valley. But this is a breed far from restricted to being viewed from only certain locations. On the contrary, you can be sure that if one cattle breed is to be repeatedly spotted by a family on their journey to their holiday destination this summer, it will be the Friesian. Yet this has not always been the case. For although the Frisii people bred this same unadulterated strain of cattle for centuries, it was not until the 19th century that the first Friesians were imported into the east coast ports of England and Scotland. However, the Livestock Journey of 1900 referred to the Dutch cattle as being both 'exceptionally good' and 'remarkably inferior'. No doubt this opinion, along with an epidemic of foot and mouth disease on the continent eight years earlier, partly explains why Friesian cattle that were in the UK in 1908 failed to even get a mention in the census. This took place around a time of agricultural depression which encouraged breed societies to flourish, including the British Holstein Cattle Society, formed in 1909 but soon altered to include the word Friesian. By 1918 Holstein had been dropped, becoming instead the British Cattle Friesian Society; interestingly, four years earlier the official importation of 1914 had allowed ports to once again feel the hooves of Friesian cattle upon their ground.
Whilst it could be argued that these imports were the embryo for establishing the Friesian as a renowned, long lived, dairy breed in the UK, it would take until the 1950's for the breed to begin its great expansion. This continued through to the 1980's, halted in the following decade by an increase Holstein influence in the breed. Just prior to this, in 1988, Holstein was once more added to the Society's name; and whilst Friesian enthusiasts fully understood the need, they were less sympathetic when they merged with the Holstein Breed Society in 1999 to become Holstein UK.
In their view the Friesian is continuing to demonstrate its general robustness and prove its worth, notable in its fertility so as to provide the black and white cross for Holstein breeders. What's more, the modern Friesian, predominantly a grazing animal, is well able to sustain itself on many lactations on both low lying and upland grasslands, so giving high lifetime yields of quality milk from home produced feeds; and in response to demand, protein percentages were raised successfully across the breed. So, whilst the idea of dual purpose animals has arguably become outmoded, it seems that Friesians are highly suitable for many farmers, especially where grazing is a main feature of the system. Additionally, male animals are highly regarded as producers of high quality lean meat whether crossed with a beef breed or not. Beef-cross heifers have also long been sought after as ideal suckler calf replacements.
So, what of the counter argument? Well, I shall save that for next time and use as my source the opinion of the writer and television presenter Jack Hargreaves. Wikipedia states 'his enduring interest was to comment without nostalgia or sentimentality on accelerating distortions in relations between the city and countryside.' Yet when it came to Friesians, it seems his opinion on the takeover of the countryside was somewhat forthright. But more of that next time. In the meantime, enjoy the rest of the summer.
Illustrated by: Paul Swailes
Illustrated by: Paul Swailes
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 82
"It is surely the loveliest scene in England and the most disarming sound." So wrote the novelist J.M. Barrie on the subject of cricket.
Putting aside my own personal bias, for I am a great lover of the game, I still view from an objective standpoint that his sentiments are fully vindicated. It is a topic I have raised in previous articles arguing that the sight of a cricket match played within a rural vista, especially in a village setting, beautifully completes the overall portrait. But Barrie's statement takes the matter one step further by emphasising the necessity for sound as well, in this case the distinct noise of leather upon willow as bat and ball encounter each other. It seems, therefore, that only once the combination of sight and sound are brought together is his "loveliest scene" truly complete.
When I read Barrie's words I was reminded of a visit to Ilfracombe's Cairn Top one summer's evening some years back. It is a favourite spot of mine, providing a pleasant panoramic view at any time of year. To the north is the Welsh coastline encompassing the Gower Peninsula and, when visibility permits, Pembrokeshire. Beyond, the ever dominant Brecon Beacons. To the east Great Hangman and Holdstone Down are visible, whilst looking southwards the sky meets farmland on a ridge near Mullacott. Out to the west are undulating peaks and troughs that make up the Torrs. Closer to hand are the steep slopes of Slade Valley through which the West Wilderbrook flows. Open fields run the crest of both sides of the valley whilst woodland covers the slopes. Some recent felling of sycamores close to the summit have also opened up a clear view of western Ilfracombe.
On reaching the hilltop there was not a breath of air. The heather and gorse that surrounded the peak lay static. The trees that cling to the surrounding steep slopes stood motionless. No rustle of leaves, no creaking of branches. Perched on the top of a pine tree, now well past its shelf life and waiting for one final storm to send it crashing to the ground, was the silhouette of a silent magpie. In the distance a hang glider seemed to spend what seemed forever following the line of the southern horizon before dipping below a distant hillcrest to land, I guessed, upon the sand at Woolacombe Bay. On Ilfracombe's seafront, holidaymakers were traipsing up and down the zigzag path of Capstone Hill like an army of ants on evening patrol. Periodically flocks of gulls nonchalantly flew through the valley in either three's, five's or seven's but always in 'V' formation. The nearer fields on the crest on the nearer side of Slade Valley were home to a herd of Friesian cattle. Directly above I observed a sky awash with insects on the wings, whilst to the right and much higher I espied a buzzard circling to take full advantage of the rising thermals from the valley below.
Then I noticed a train of eight jackdaws flying in a closely packed formation in an east-west alignment. In this particular instance it seemed an inappropriate collective term for the species; for even when viewed from a distance, one will normally hear something that detects a locomotive.
Yet herein lies the point I am trying to make. Much as what I have described so far had pleasantly added to the overall scene, it did not complete it. Sound was required. This was to be provided by various sources, including the 'chack' of a lone jackdaw flying close behind the other eight. His call was slow and drawn out as if to make some sort of plea to couple up with the train and enable them to fly in a true 'V' formation. But the group were clearly staying tightly packed. Maybe in the jackdaw world eight's company, nine's a crowd. Above me came the 'vit, vit' call of swallows which, along with their silent counterparts the swifts and house martins, were about to enjoy a supper feast by eliminating the sky of its winged insects. In the valley below came the frequent sounds of a dog's bark, children's laughter and whining buses as they began their steep ascent through Score Valley and out of Ilfracombe; and much closer to hand but out of sight, the unmistakable calls of grasshoppers and crickets. The scene was now complete.
But on the evening I visited, noise and then the subsequent lack of it, was to play a unique role at sundown. Being a time of year when one can observe the sunset in the middle of one of the Torr's depressions, it can appear as though the sun is literally sinking into a trough half full of seawater. On this occasion, just as its golden ball began reflecting upon the sea, a nearby wood pigeon commenced a boisterous rally of 'oo-OO-oo' calls. All the while a second herd of Friesians appeared on the crest of the highest field on the far side of the valley. Then, as the sun dipped the lowest edge of her circle behind the sea's horizon, the wood
pigeon abruptly halted its call and fervently flew to the other side of the valley. In turn, both herds began bellowing out a strange chorus of calls
that resonated across the valley. Gradually, in time with the setting sun, their calls mellowed. Once the sun had set, all had become eerily quiet. No birdlife above. No sound from within the grasses and scrubland. No barking, laughing or noise from traffic in the valleys. Utter silence.
Then, a sudden rustle of leaves could be heard as the gentlest of cool breezes glided through the Cairn's green canopy. The grasses and scrubbery acknowledged its presence with subtle movements. The breeze grew and with each gust it became a little stronger until goosebumps began to appear on my arms. Time then to head home. As I did so, nature proffered up one final sound, courtesy of a call of a tawny owl which echoed through the woodland. Time for the creatures of the night to take centre stage.
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 81
The subject of my article last autumn was a sycamore leaf I had collected whilst walking through Worlbury woods close to where I live.On returning home, I had studied the leaf whilst reheating my body with a soothing mug of milky coffee. It was at various stages of its seasonal decay, having colours ranging from pale green through to jet black. It no longer had its perfect five-lobed spiky outline and upon its surface I could make out distinct patches that took on the shapes of animals and continents, rather like one observes clouds in the sky.
To some this may sound a peculiar way to spend one's time whilst sipping a hot beverage, but for me it has its benefits.For I was enjoying the moment, in turn preventing me from cogitating over tasks I needed to accomplish that day or ruminate over what had happened yesterday. The future could wait and I could not alter the past.
In this issue I want to broaden the subject to more than just one leaf and include with it the mention of petals;to be precise, those of the cherry blossom tree. One such tree is situated in my neighbours' front garden, and, in spring and autumn especially, is a pleasure to behold. It has characteristics which, alongside the chrysanthemum, make it a national flower of Japan.It is also a Japanese symbol of clouds due to its blooming en masse. It represents mortality as well, its blossom only lasting for a short period and having a liability to change rapidly - especially if strong spring winds and blustery rain showers prevail.
Autumnal winds can also have the same effect on the tree although its more robust leaves can withstand the forces of nature just a little bit longer compared to the delicate blossom petals. A dull shade in overcast weather, the leaves reignite and will absorb a mellow autumn sun when the clouds disperse. However, the cherry tree pales into insignificance when compared to the vibrant seasonal shades of the oak, beech, sweet chestnut and yellow field maple. Indeed, any of these tree species seen en masse provide a stunning scene for the onlooker. Espy as a mixed woodland and the view becomes breathtaking as the observer attempts to take in a host of russet brown, orange, copper, yellow and gold.
For those who seek the best woodlands at this time of year, then the Exploring Woodlands guides, published by Frances Lincoln, are a great help. Some in the series highlight the best woods in southern and southwest England for you to seek out. But for those wishing to stay closer to home, they need only traverse the roads, lanes and paths of North Devon and West Somerset to reap the rewards of this season. Hornet Water, between Dunkery and the sea, is one such place with its cleft boasting the complete set of the aforementioned tree species. But if Exmoor is too far, then perhaps seeking out a row of beech trees stretching up from a Devon hedge bank or a small copse may be within walking distance.Alternatively, a tree of any species might be viewed from one of your own windows, providing an opportunity to observe its subtle transformation. Or if this is not possible, perhaps seeking out one of Halsgrove's books on Exmoor.
Whatever way you choose to enjoy the colours of autumn, hold onto this thought. Although the end of autumn will see the trees bare once more, this is merely Mother Nature's way of resting from her labours since the onset of the snowdrops last February.Steve McCarthy
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 80
Do any readers know of an old fashioned, pedantic sender of text messages? If not, then I must be the first. Not that it's anything to do with owning a mobile phone where, in order to obtain the letter 'c', you have to press the 'abc' button three times. Far from it. Like many others I own an iPhone that comes with predictive text. It does, however, have one disadvantage. It does not predict punctuation marks. Is this, then, the reason why, had certain friends and relatives tapped away what you have read so far, it would be one continual sentence?
I find the consequence infuriating as it leads me to expend needless effort deciphering how the sentences should be constructed and so lose the complete gist of the message in the process. And if the sender starts adding abbreviations, I am liable to go into meltdown. Text talk amongst the younger generation is now as common as two blackbirds communicating their evensong at dusk; but whilst the blackbirds are capable of producing a wealth of tunes by subtle variations, I do wonder if they can compete with the 1461 abbreviations that allow a text sender to shorten their message - source: webopedia.com July 2017. This amount rather puts me to shame. I know just one - although I did recently discover it had two meanings, not that it stops me from tapping in full 'lots of love' or 'ha ha!', as it seems to make the expressions more sincere.
Anything that is popular will by nature expand. Hardly surprising, therefore, that the facility to access the internet, send e-mails or carry out other countless actions on a mobile phone, has led to scenes such as rows of horizontal heads along a railway platform in the rush hour - to name just one site.
Illustrated by Paul Swailes
I, too, began a love affair with my iPhone, until, that is, I made a conscious effort to cut the umbilical cord whilst stood upon a platform at Bristol Templemeads station. Having placed my iPhone deep within my pocket I kept my head vertical and scanned the vista. No disrespect to the city - it's a place I love - but the view from the station is far from inspiring. So instead I glanced around the station and happened to notice a row of pictures along the wall behind me. Each one, done by various local artists, depicted areas of Bristol both urban and rural. With time on my hands, I began studying each picture before moving onto the next. At first I felt very self-conscious, by the third picture a little less so. On reaching the last one I looked back along the wall and noticed a passenger who had been idly waiting for our train, just like me, moving to the second picture along having contemplated the first. Could this become a craze, I wondered? Perhaps I should try it at the height of the rush hour.
Of course, mobile phone addiction is not limited to crowds. A waiting room, a park bench or, annoyingly, restaurants are cases in point, along with people walking and texting at the same time, Why do they never seem to trip up? But more importantly they are missing out on all that is around them. As are children in cars. Just think how many children will be travelling in a car throughout North Devon during the school holidays. Will they be looking out of their car windows? I doubt it. Now before I am put on the naughty step until the next issue by every parent reading this, I have not forgotten that I myself was once a child, one that on any trip to the coast asked after ten minutes, "Are we there yet?" And ten minutes later, "When will I see the sea?" So yes, play stations have their place. But once my holiday began, the sheer thrill made me want to see what was around me.
So here is my case in point. The reason for my excitement was because I was seeing something different from my urban home environment. Sheep, hedges, fields, cows, horses, gigantic sheds with brown grass stacked high and houses with people living with no near neighbours. Yet sadly, when a friend stayed with us a few years ago with her two children, I could not get either of them to take an interest in the world beyond the car window. The eight-year old boy preferred his play station. The twelve-year old girl had a great need to continually tap her abbreviated text messages in order to keep in touch with her friends back home. The sight disheartened me.
So how do we break this cycle? Indeed, can it be broken? I feel it can, but only by instilling interest in the countryside early in a child's life. It is why I get immense joy from reading about the activities of Berrynarbor's Primary School and Pre-school. But what about the children who attend schools in urban environments? Answers on a postcard!
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 79
William Henry Hudson was born in 1841 and spent his childhood along the shoreline of the Rio de la Plata [river of silver] that separated Uruguay and Argentina. Roaming the farms and ranches, he observed the surrounding wild flora and fauna and in particular the birds that launched, flew over or came to roost upon the area's vast plains.
At the age of fifteen he contracted a fever that affected his heart, something he felt would significantly reduce his life expectancy.He was to eventually live until aged eighty-one. One can only speculate whether his concern drove him to consolidate his passion for wildlife;having reached his late twenties, no doubt to his surprise, he decided to move to London to become a naturalist.
Compared to his contemporaries he was very much a free spirit and soon became an advocate for the back-to-nature movement. Spurred on by his enthusiasm, he made copious notes of his observations which he subsequently combined into essays. However, in complete contrast to the majority of his fellow naturalists, Hudson became renowned for his skill in portraying vivid pictures of his observations through short pieces of work.
One such piece is titled Geese - Great Norfolk, from a collection, Adventures Among Birds, published in 1932. In it he describes how, over a two-week period, he observed fifty or more geese come to roost with overloaded crops full of corn. Then one evening, to his utter amazement, he saw at least four thousand geese appear on the horizon "like a great crimson globe hanging just below the black roof tops of Wells". Once above the flat sands, the gaggle circled whilst waiting for stragglers to join before dramatically descending to roost. Hudson describes the event as "the most magnificent spectacle in wild bird life I have ever witnessed in England".
The spectacle clearly aroused Hudson. But this was only half of the story. For on one evening prior to this display he had noticed a lone injured goose standing some way from the marshland. Unable to venture with its counterparts to collect corn, Hudson's heart sank upon seeing the bird raise its head towards the geese above, as they returned with their abundance of corn. But it's hope of a small offering from their takings was diminished as they came in to roost upon the marshland, for it soon became clear that each individual was protective of their corn; and when, on the evening of that magical spectacle, not one of over 4000 geese were prepared to share a mere clutch of corn, the goose knew it was truly ostracised. With that the lone creature set off towards the sand.
The story coincides with my own recent observations close to our bungalow. Across the road are a pair of wood pigeons nesting within the row of tall leylandii.Meanwhile, a collared dove is sat upon her nest in our mahonia, content as we pass by only a few feet away and safe in the knowledge that she is well camouflaged. However, this year there are a pair of magpies hunting the area for eggs. Their success appears to depend upon which breed of bird is patrolling their patch. Get too close to the dove's nest and an aggressive response is instigated that soon forces the magpies to flee. But watch them enter the leylandii and one sees a violent tossing of branches; one can only assume that the magpies are willing to take the pigeons head on in their attempt to steal an egg - a trait with which magpies are steadfastly labelled.
But let us end on a positive note and return to William Hudson, someone who no doubt gained immense fulfilment and reward from an unexpected life span which enabled him to absorb in his surroundings.
Yet it is something that we can all do - a point I have been raising in a number of recent issues. I do not doubt that a mere glance at the calendar in your kitchen would reflect a wealth of commitments. Some will be compulsory, others through choice.
There is, however, one commitment that may not be on your calendar. It requires personal discipline to ensure it is not pushed to one side;and. if carried out with frequency, would become an integral part of your daily timetable - an opportunity to just sit and be in the present moment, no matter how small that segment of time may be. In my case, like Hudson, to be at one with nature.
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 78
Over the next two months, cricket leagues up and down the country will begin their season. Although they commence, in general, during the second half of spring, the sight of a cricket match played upon a green is arguably the epitome of a summer scene in a rural village. And if the game is competed on a field beyond the heart of the village, the setting is likely to be complemented by an abundance of green shades enveloping the location of the pitch.
In the air wafts the strike of leather upon willow, the shout of "Run two!", the cries of "Catch it!", the cheers at the fielder's accomplishment and the ripple of consolatory applause as the batsman leaves the field with only a handful of runs to his or her name. Or maybe the thud of ball upon pad is heard followed by the desperate bellow of "Howzat?", the sense of anticipation drifting in the summer breeze and finally the batsman's disbelieving stare towards the nearby line of poplar trees having witnessed the fatal rise of the umpire's index finger.
Climbing the few wooden steps, the batsman smells, sooner than anticipated, the musty aromas of the pavilion and hears a comment above the chitchat, "Nice sandwiches, Fallon." "Thanks", she replies and then adds, "Though I can't take credit for the lemon drizzle cake. Jill Archer's been 'baking for England' since her recovery from that ankle injury." [Apologies to non-Archers listeners; though if the character did bake cakes for the current England side, I have no doubt it would improve their results.]
No cricket match is complete without the ticking over of its scoreboard. Whilst on the opposite side of the ground sit two characters beneath the tall copper beech. One can be heard sipping steaming tea from the thermos whilst scrutinising every change in fielding position. In contrast, the other can be heard breathing heavily, laid back fully in his deckchair with a magazine across closed eyelids that are only willing to reopen when ears hear the next loud appeal for a wicket.
This is, of course, a romantic portrayal of cricket - and not just at club level. For the game of cricket - is in crisis, none more so than at Test grounds. Throughout the Test playing nations, most games are played out in front of rows and rows of empty seats. The one-day game temporarily halted the decline in popularity until overkill made many of these matches tedious and meaningless.
And so it came to pass that the Lords of the English Cricket Board invented T20 - the twenty-twenty game, twenty overs per side. Thankfully it has stemmed the flow, for it meets the demands of a fast-moving society. Like football and tennis, a match now lasts the ideal length of time for the modem limited concentration span.
Illustrated by: Paul Swailes
Yet it is a concept that conflicts with our rural surroundings; of the four seasons, summer provides the most prolonged period of our countryside in full bloom. Its months give plenty of opportunity to absorb its green beauty and to gain pleasure from the elegance of its flowers that will endure. Miss it one day, enjoy it the next. Spring is the complete opposite; a time when stormy showers can keel over daffodils and high winds wrench blossom from the trees. Fail to walk beside a verge, along a lane, across a field or through a wood at just the right times and you will miss the celandine, the primroses, the buttercups and the bluebells at their peak.
I often hear people comment on the prettiness of a magnolia in bloom. Yes, this positively always ends on a negative note. The trouble is one gust of wind and that's it for another year! But is that not the reason they were put on this earth? It ensures we make the most of the blossom for the short time it is on show. On reflection, maybe the leaves of the copper beech are the Test matches of our countryside - the prolonged version of the game, where one can take note of the score at any time. The magnolia, meanwhile, is the T20, on view for a very short period but providing great joy and pleasure. Happy Easter.
RURAL REFLECTIONS 77
In my previous article I made reference to a form of therapy that I use in my work to help people with mental health problems. Now mainstream and, to some perhaps just the latest craze, Mindfulness has become an effective technique; and if those who are cynical require evidence then just speak to the people who attend the eight week course I help to run.
The example I use for 'living in the present moment', the basis of Mindfulness, was a sycamore leaf in the midst of its autumnal decay and how, having brought it home from a walk, I spent time studying it. To some this may seem a futile exercise but not when put into context. For I had received a telephone call from a friend the previous evening who had got himself into a right pickle - so much so I spent all of the walk the next morning brooding over his predicament. But for what purpose? After all, no end of worrying on my part was going to conjure up the right ploughman's, figuratively speaking, to complement his pickle. More important, however, was that my fretting led me to miss out on the beautiful autumnal colours around me - in other words appreciating the present moment. I was therefore fortunate that the sycamore leaf caught my eye.
But what if I had not been able to go for a walk? What if say, I had become poorly overnight? More than likely I would have chosen to browse through a book, rural in its theme and defined by pictures, ideally scenes from Exmoor. Not that I have always been this way. There was a time when these pages would have been worthy of a mere glance. But nowadays, just as the sycamore leaf received my undivided consideration, so the leaf of a page with a countryside view merits my time to the extent that I can spend an afternoon on this type of book without feeling guilty or regarding the time spent as unproductive.
Only this morning I was sifting through the pages of such a book, looking for any one picture that might catch my attention. The page at which I stopped had a caption beneath that emphasised the scene's three key components: the River Barle swollen and rapidly flowing from overnight rain; a dense woodland stretching from the far bank upon which a sunbeam streamed onto a handful of trees and enriched their golden colours; and the striking silhouette of a thick tree trunk in the foreground. Facts registered, time then to turn the page. Or maybe not. Instead, time to consider the finer details.
I initially espied a carpet of pale brown leaves straddling the near bank, so many I could almost smell the potent decaying aroma they emit en-masse. Just visible within the trunk were two large crevices, the higher one boasting deep green foliage stretching claw like into the early morning air. Moss suffocated the nearside bank from which two trees rose to embrace dappled sunlight. Here and there, jagged rocks jutted from the ground to form an uneven and rugged pathway beside the river. The picture denoted a starvation of sunlight in recent times upon the trees in the foreground, bereft of their leaves and once again baring their winter coats; and this in shocking contrast to the density of golden-brown trees beyond the river where high trees permitted glimpses of a pale blue sky upon the print. A mere peep too of a mossy island in the middle of the river which in calmer waters would have disclosed a more hospitable show. I could go on.
However, it is this very going on that can be dispensed not only to service users in emotional crisis but to all of us; and the subject matter can be anything. In cases where I am taking a duty call at work it could be asking someone to describe their feelings, emotionally or physically, at that very moment; or tell me what they can see, hear or smell in as much detail as they can. If they are in a room it may be a picture, any fabrics, decorative pieces or an ornament which if it is close by they could hold it and describe how it feels - even better whilst stroking a pet! Alternatively, it may be what they can see out of a window. A garden plant, a tree or shrub, any wildlife, the sky or even just traffic and people passing by. Put simply, living in the moment rather than concerning themselves with the past or future.
Naturally, one might argue that looking out of a window in the depths of winter may not be ideal advice. Think again. For contrary to the first line of the Christmas carol, the deep midwinter is not quite as bleak as it may seem. I cite as an example the weeping willow trees in Bicclescombe Park I used to see from my lounge. Stripped of leaves, their branches bore an orange glow, pale on bright days but a shocking and burnt shade when dull and becoming luminous on the darkest of days. Add driving rain and a forceful wind which violently tossed their branches and it was mesmerising. Once the storm had passed, the lane through Score Valley would beckon, its air filled with vanilla fragrance induced by the raindrops that had fallen upon the wintering flowers of heliotrope. Meanwhile the bare hedgerows were now setting me the challenge of seeking out any secluded red campion or herb Robert still in flower. An opportunity too for easier bird spotting. Climbing up to St Brannocks Road, crossing over to the Cairn followed by a further steep climb allowed a stroll along The Beard path where naked trees revealed once more the woodland floor's startling nose dive. Reaching Cairn Top, I was in time to see the winter sun send rays upon linear clouds that in turn reflected a covering of dusky pink upon the countryside. Looking to the southeast I was reminded of the breathtaking sunrise watched on the winter solstice when the frozen ground twinkled with a million stars. To the north, the welsh mountains had been beautifully draped in earlier snow. The lack of summer haze had presented me a view deep into Wales; a sight even more astounding on the morning when its coastline was still visible above a haunting low winter fog that shrouded the Channel. Nearing home I then observed a great variety of bird species upon our feeders, all of them now seeking winter fuel having cleared the shelves of their own rural pantries. Finally, back inside with a hot drink and the dogs slumbering in the heat emitted from the open fire, I admired the unique outline of each bare branch upon the London plain in the park. Make the most of the season. The rural winter's special offers will end soon; and it's therapy will not cost you a penny. Merry Christmas.
RURAL REFLECTIONS 76
One aspect of my job role in supporting adults with mental health problems is to receive telephone calls on my allocated duty days. The enquiries vary enormously. It may be a patient requesting an earlier appointment with their care co-ordinator or a third party expressing concern about someone they have just visited. Some calls. on the other hand, are from people in crisis which, more often than not, have resulted from an occurrence that triggered their sadness, anxiety or anger to spiral out of control. In some cases, these uncontrollable feelings can lead to a desire to carry out a harmful reaction either to their environment, to other people or to themselves.
Before I go any further, I must emphasis my greatest respect for skilled workers, both in an employed and voluntary capacity, who receive such calls without any prior knowledge of the person on the other end of the line. For even if I have not dealt with them personally, they will at least be known to our service. This allows me the luxury to bring up their details on my computer screen and, when they are in crisis, refer to their coping strategies. These strategies are fluid and regarded as work in progress, the person developing in time more effective ways of coping. Interestingly, a new technique is being introduced and is one that many of our patients are finding beneficial.
It is a form of therapy about which even I as a professional was at first sceptical - just a previous therapy regurgitated in a modern format; another gimmick from America; an opportunity for someone to make a few bucks selling their books, CDs and DVDs. Of this latter point I felt I even had proof, two friends having bought CDs and finding them ineffective. Mindfulness, huh . . . just wait until I speak to that mental health OT who runs the group.
So I did. She said that ideally people should not be left to their own devices; for it to be effective, people need guidance and support. But what of my other points? In response, she said there was scientific evidence, that it was based upon Buddhist teachings from two thousand years ago and that it had comparisons with the various principles and practices of all religions. Hmm . . .
Stripping away all its layers it seems that Mindfulness, in its simplest form, is about living in the present moment - a point highlighted in my previous article about all the appointments and schedules that seem to dictate our modern lifestyle. That's not to say, of course, that we can stop the march of time. But do we have to live by the clock? For as William Henry Davies wrote in his poem, Leisure. 'What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stop and stare.'
It is his last three words that are the key. After all, it is one thing strolling through an autumnal woodland admiring the various shades of gold. but it is another to make a conscious effort to stop in your tracks and not only stare but also to listen intently and to inhale the aromas; to study the view furthest away from you, the area close at hand and the detail above and below you. Of all these directions, looking downwards can feel the most unnatural. Yet you will be surprised what there is to see, especially at this time of year when the woodland floor is resplendent in fungal colours and shapes. But it can also be beneficial to look at the ground surrounding your feet, for you will discover autumn leaves all at their unique stages of decomposition. Only this morning, whilst walking our three Labradors through Weston Woods, I glimpsed a sycamore leaf on the path undergoing its annual decay. Having picked it up, I brought it home and examined it whilst supping my milky coffee. Yes, I know it seems a bizarre thing to do. Yet the more I studied the leaf, the more beautiful it became.
Typically palmate in shape and having five pointed lobes, this particular leaf was roughly the size of a young teenager's hand, slightly outstretched. The main lobe, pointing directly at twelve o'clock, was around three inches in width across the centre with the other four lobes decreasing at various rates with the lobe pointing southwest, have a width of just over an inch. The outline of the leaf displayed two distinct edging patterns, one having a jagged edge the other an irregular, ripped appearance. From its base, five veins curved upwards and then through the centre of their allotted lobe. Some lobes had further veins that were quite distinct, leading off alternately from the central vein. Mustard yellow dominated the leaf, covering most of the top lobe and its right hand neighbour. A coffee cream shade followed the contours of the main lobe's central vein with the side veins also slightly covered, portraying milk chocolate fingers. Its neighbouring lobe, meanwhile, could still boast green areas whilst owning two black patches, one the shape of Africa the other Lundy. Africa also had four dark islands surrounding it, three on its eastern flank and one close to its south-western coastline. Part of this lobe's edging was also dull grey as if tinged by a smouldering fire.
The two lower lobes also contained green; had I been an artist, it would seem as though I had flicked a brush full of parakeet green paint over the south-eastern lobe whilst its opposite number had a fresher shade of lime green. Five pointed lobes on one leaf, each boasting a unique pattern.
But what, I hear you ask, of those people who are at the other end of that telephone line? For I can hardly advise them to get in their car or catch the next bus and head out to the Mendips in order to divert their thoughts and take in their rural surroundings. After all, if they are in an emotional crisis how can what I have just described be applicable to their situation? As ever, I will leave that until next time.
I should like to dedicate this article to my dear cousin Glenis. A fellow author, she gave me great encouragement when I considered writing a book about the Cairn. "Go for it, Steve," she said. "If anybody can describe a leaf you can!"
RURAL REFLECTIONS 75
Throughout the school summer break I often recall a friend who managed a sandwich bar in North Devon. A small business, it relied heavily on the income taken during what my friend called 'the silly six weeks'. Her profit margin at the end of this period would vary considerably from year to year and was due to a number of factors.Yet it was the two weeks that followed on from this 'silly spell' that ensured a steady, albeit less, guaranteed stream of customers who she would see only during this fortnight. For this was the time when, as one of these regular patrons dubbed it was 'the first opportunity for the adults to come out and play since the children went back to work in their classrooms'.
Early September was a time when we, too, would have a holiday staying in our static caravan in the Sterridge Valley - and for very much the same reason. This is not to denounce the school summer break; on the contrary, it gifted us memories of great family holidays that we shall forever treasure.But I also needed holidays when my surroundings were less hectic, especially once I started a highly pressurised job.It was not too long before our two weeks away became three; how I would have coped with my job without this vacation, along with other breaks in our 'van, I cannot imagine. But of one thing I am sure. The North Devon countryside became a personal sanctuary - a place of healing that prepared me for the next onslaught of reactive management in a job where, as one of my colleagues was heard to remark, "You start every morning with a completed jigsaw puzzle that is immediately broken to pieces and then spend all day putting it back together again". At least Berrynarbor enabled me to restore the frame that encased the puzzle.
As well as being my retreat, North Devon also became my rural kindergarten where basic lessons were taught about the extended definition of rural; lessons that were, in essence, a diversion from my mind's racetrack where I was led to a gentle lane with a convalescent countryside.
Hold on. Was this not the case for the inpatients of psychiatric hospitals built within the countryside surrounding London - those very same people I labelled as being cast aside so as to be invisible to the public eye? Maybe not, for London's own institutions were already overcrowded. So was it not better to be hospitalised, albeit permanently in the tranquility of a rural setting? After all, I did make reference in my last article to in-patients eventually forgetting the world beyond the boundaries of their hospital grounds; a safe sanctuary for recuperation, just like North Devon's rural border was for me.
This is not to necessarily a case of defending these archaic mental hospitals, merely put forward as a counter argument to my previous article.However, the key factor in my view is that these institutions, whether or not they were set in a calm and rural location, still provided care that was in the main inappropriately permanent. It is for this reason I feel there is a need in our society for convalescent care in restful and pastoral surroundings; places where the mind is gently sedated not by medication alone but also by the environment.
I shall finish with the first half of the storyline to the film, Now, Voyager. It stars Bette Davis as Boston heiress Charlotte Vale, an unwanted spinster daughter and neurotic mess, living under the dictatorship of a dominant mother who undermines her self-confidence on a daily basis. When her sister-in-law realises Charlotte is on the verge of a nervous breakdown, she introduces her to a psychiatrist who recommends a short period of convalescence in a sanatorium set in a restful and rural setting. By the end of her stay she has rebuilt her self-belief and is persuaded by her sister-in-law to take a cruise. On board she meets Jerry, played by Paul Henreid, a character with whom Charlotte becomes friendly and . . well, if you don't know the rest you will have to watch the film - I should also advise having a box of tissues to hand!
Bette Davis, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains and Gladys Cooper
Perhaps in this fast moving world we now live in our society is rather like Charlotte's mother, for most of us have lives that are powerfully dictated by constraints and commitments.I am, therefore, astonished that it has taken a modern form of therapy to help our brains find once more its inner peace; one that for many involves nature. But more of that next time.
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 74
One of my job roles is to monitor services provided to people with mental health problems living in residential care.Each time I greet a resident I experience a flashback to Saturday afternoons during my college years whilst living on the Surrey borders in Banstead. Its neighboring town, Epsom, is of course famous for a horse race that is one of the highlights of the flat season and takes place just after this newsletter is circulated. However, both towns had in common a facility that had nothing to do with the sort of public recreation provided by Epsom's racecourse. That's not to say that recreation wasn't on offer; but it was certainly not for public use.
There were five of these conveniences in the Epsom countryside known as the Epsom Cluster and a lone offering on Banstead Downs. All six provided a service that was, in essence, set up so that the eyes and the minds of the London public could pretend that a certain category of the human race did not exist:the insane [and, tragically, many other classifications who were admitted on a permanent basis for reasons including having an unattractive health issue or having found oneself in a situation deemed morally unacceptable]. Like all other mental hospitals, long term patients lived in what could be culturally regarded as isolated, self-contained villages. As an in-patient it was a natural progression to gradually forget the outside world and know only of one's life within the hospital's grounds.Yet every Saturday afternoon as I handed a cup of tea over the counter to another patient who had waited politely, silently in the queue, I would notice a brief sparkle in their eyes;a glimmer of a dream of what could have been. Instead, a life lost.
In many respects the principle of providing a service for those deemed as unpleasant civilians or merely regarded as less fortunate, had been around long before the aforementioned hospitals in the form of workhouses and asylums.The subject of my last article, John Clare, was admitted to an asylum in 1837 as a result of living in desperate poverty; this despite having had a collection of his natural history letters published. One can only wonder whether he would have gone on to publish more had better support services been available.
Many of the old workhouse buildings can still be seen in cities, towns and villages, now adapted for other purposes.South Molton's is a good example.Ironic, therefore, that their urban locations were in contrast to the settings of the mental institutions.Yet it is their very situation that provides a tenuous link with race courses;for both were [or still are] providing services situated in a rural environment.
In the course of composing this article I have realised it is Mental Health Awareness week and subsequently find myself bringing this article to a conclusion that I did not set out to do - this happens a lot to writers! On the radio they are currently discussing the sensitive issue of abuse, something I have to be aware of when carrying out my work role. If I detect it, then I have to report it as a safeguarding concern.Some forms of abuse can be obvious whilst others can be more subtle, such as emotional or institutional.I am pleased to say that to date I have not witnessed this.
However, from a rural angle the concept of abuse becomes an interesting matter;the extent and ways in which we exploit our countryside is an emotive issue.Bringing both facets together, I shall leave you with these thoughts. Firstly, if I was a Reviewing Officer fifty years ago then what of those patients who would only accept a cup of tea as long as I gave them permission?Would I be having to safeguard them from institutional abuse? Secondly, if I was employed in my post in Victorian times, based in Epsom and having to cover rural issues as well, would I need to safeguard the countryside from the construction of the mental hospitals - not just on physical grounds, i.e. a change to the environment, but on moral grounds as well?
South Molton Workhouse & Gates c1900 and 2001
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 73
Our washing machine recently became rather poorly. It started to suffer from unpredictable high temperatures and severe bouts of water retention. I telephoned a specialist who agreed to do a home visit and run tests. The results were not favourable. He said the machine could have a programme transplant but at a cost so high it would be kinder to help it on its way to an everlasting heavenly hot wash. Put simply, purchasing a new washing machine would be cheaper. Bless him, he did at least give us comfort - no, not that type - by telling us our machine had lasted longer than its expected life span. I thought it a curious term, especially when one considers that our laundering device was an inanimate object. Not that it was unique, of course; a man-made item will not last forever if it is beyond repair, too expensive to repair, severely neglected or no longer required.
This last example was the focus of my last two articles, namely disused tracks and derelict buildings. Viewed objectively neither are alive. Yet both have not only directly terminated their shelf life; they have also indirectly catered for a vast number of living species, present either all year round or at certain seasons. The deterioration of the deserted trackway and the absent abode is subtle and effected by the weather gods imposing their extreme conditions and temperatures. It is a decline too subtle for the naked eye to detect and is therefore unlike the delicate alterations that occur within our rural world during the course of one year. For we need not be intelligent or skilful to notice them. Nor do we need to possess the gift of grammar. All that we require is a keen eye, a notepad and a pen.
Such scrutiny does not have to be restricted to pastoral transformations. Basic descriptions of any occurrences both close at hand and further afield can be sufficient - and rewarding. One of the best exponents of this was John Clare (1793-1864). The son of a Northamptonshire labourer, he initially worked as a herd boy and then as an under gardener. Both jobs ignited a love for the wild flora and fauna around him. So when the opportunity arose to manage his own farm, Clare viewed it as a logical progression. Unfortunately, his instinct was to be his undoing, failing as a farmer and subsequently living in desperate poverty.
Clare was eventually committed to an asylum, aged 44. Yet seventeen years prior to this he had begun composing poetry about his observations on the surrounding countryside. Spirited by his discovery to possess the gift of narration, he began drafting a number of similar-themed letters and sent them to a publisher. Feedback was positive, fuelling his enthusiasm. The more he witnessed, the more prolific he wrote - this despite never learning to spell or punctuate.
A collection of his works, Natural History Letters was published in 1825, every misspelt word uncorrected and without any necessary punctuation marks added. One of his letters, entitled Spring beautifully reflects his talent for spotting the most delicate facets of our natural environment by relaying his discovery of a snail's resourcefulness. He is amazed by its instinct, observing that despite its slowness a snail only ever goes far enough foraging for food, secure in the knowledge that it can return to the undergrowth and be unharmed by the sun - and only just in time. He also describes the snail's keen perception that, unlike night time, it must only forage close by during daylight hours so it can return to the safety of shade if the sun were to suddenly appear from behind a cloud.
But Clare also makes a more valuable comment on the matter: "the snail's instinct is very remarkable and worth notice tho such things are looked over with a careless eye". Clare and I are clearly soulmates. For like him, the book I wrote was merely an amalgamation of the scribbles I made about what I saw whilst taking walks on the Cairn - all purely based on the activities of its wildlife and the changing colours of its trees and wild flowers. But also like Clare, I did not undertake a degree or attend a course in book publishing to be an author.
So this spring, why not take a pad and a pen with you and either sit in your garden or find a spot in the countryside. You will be pleasantly surprised at the goings on around you; and who knows, like Clare, you might even get your collection of notes published.
Memorial at Helpston, Peterborough
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 72
I bought my partner for Christmas a complete Hetty Wainthrop Investigates on DVD. In truth it was a joint gift for I also thoroughly enjoyed the four series that were first televised in the late 1990's. In my view the storylines were a blend of the traditional and the modern. Back in the '70's I can recall detective programmes where the opening scenes revealed the perpetrator carrying out his or her sinister deed and merely left the viewer observing the private investigator's methods in unravelling the case.
Nowadays a shadow, a hand or even the camera itself acts as the impostor, in turn necessitating a close study of the proceedings in order to piece together the clues on offer. In contrast Hetty's character [played by Patricia Routledge] makes one feel as though she is solving her cases alongside her watching public. The initial scenes, played out before Hetty enters the story, seem to make it obvious who will be brought to justice; so obvious, Hetty assumes the same as you do whilst carrying out her lines of enquiry. But a twist at the end then surprises both investigator and viewer alike.
At least all three approaches bring their storylines to a conclusion. However, not all fictional narratives end this way, something that utterly frustrates me - especially if I have read an epic that has left me pondering what may have happened next. I guess I was the same as a child; and not just with books. Nothing irked me more than venturing down a narrow wooded path that disappeared into low lying vegetation, so terminating my chances of discovering the path's eventual destination. I'm not much better with paths now I am an adult. Present me with a No Entry sign and I will become frantic to know why I can't go any further.
Such was the case on a regular dog walk along what was no doubt an ancient track, similar to those I referred to in my last article. Initially lined by beeches and oaks, the track then entered woodland, privately owned I assumed, and the reason access beyond was forbidden. Oh, how I longed to climb the gate's bars and discover where that track led!
Each day I would make a point of peering into a bay window with its now unrivalled crittall frames. There I
would see an elderly lady sat in her armchair looking out. We would wave, the dogs would stop at her gates and bring a smile to her face and she would point across to any wildlife or flowers in the meadow.
Then one day I glanced in and saw a troubled expression on her face. Rather than gently waving she was forcefully pointing an index finger. I followed its direction to a lamp post upon which I saw a notice - a planning notice, I very quickly discovered, conveying that the road along which she lived would no longer be the estate's southern limit. For the field was to be built upon and her natural world slowly disappear in front of her eyes. No longer would she see cuckoo flowers in spring, swallows in summer and golden leaves in autumn.
The notice left me wondering if in winter she could see through the bare branches of the oaks and beeches and make out the sloping field on the other side of the track. Could she spot the sheep that wandered about seeking morsels of grass and could she detect the derelict remains of a structure built into the field's hillside a century or more before she was born? Gone without trace was the pathway to a dwelling where life once existed but had long since ceased. A construction that no doubt experienced its own beginnings of human life. Now another life form was in evidence, one that was there before the building was erected and now took advantage of the shade and protection offered by the jagged walls. Whilst wildflowers abounded at ground level, creeping ivy escalated the cobbled vertical surfaces in a desperate attempt to blend them into their natural setting. The building's walls know neither spring nor summer, just the changes in the weather that slowly enact their execution. Its demise encourages wildflowers to flourish; the same flowers whose existence will be extinguished when the new houses are built upon the meadow. And therein lies their affinity. For both crumbling abode and flourishing field are making a sacrifice for the birth of new life, both wild and domesticated. Rather like another sacrifice that the Christian world recognises at this time of year.
Illustrations by Paul Swailes
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 71
Of all the country lanes in England, Devon's probably reflect the regular paths of the Middle Ages more than any other county. On Dartmoor especially, where wheeled carts were virtually unknown in medieval times, a road now negotiated by the tyres of a delivery van no doubt track a route once stamped by the hooves of pack horses. Similar journeys can be traced in Lancashire and Yorkshire where they were used on the cross-Pennine waysides. A packhorse's workload was often heavy though this was at least made easier by the tailor made pack saddle shaped to fit the appropriate animal used for haulage. Their chore was made less strenuous, too, thanks to the saddle blanket that sat beneath the saddle, ensuring the weight load was evenly distributed. Sometimes the transportation of mineral, firewood or goods required more than a single horse; in some cases up to forty were known to be used. Collectively termed a train of pack horses, they share one curious similarity with their modern day equivalent; for just like the express train that sounds its horn ahead of a station or crossing, so the leading pack horse would wear bells to give notice of their imminent arrival at the junction of two trackways.
As well as the movement of goods and animals, countryside tracks also evolved where communication links demanded. However, if for example in the case of a farmer whose tenancy was not extended, forcing his family to become homeless, but resulting in the dwelling becoming uninhabited, the track leading to it merely vanished beneath the expansion of nature. Moreover in cases involving moorland tracks they literally disappeared under bogs, never to be seen again. The coming of the canals and turnpike roads brought about the packhorse's redundancy, with the roads heralding a new era of travel in the form of the stagecoach.
It was a mode of transport that the gentry insisted upon, their desirable lifestyle mingling with the European bourgeoisie most inconsiderately curtailed by the Napoleonic wars. Alternative vacation on home soil was therefore required by this new form of transport. A luxury? Far from it. In the realms of the upper set the stage coach was deemed as essential progress. Imperative too that the countryside's trackways were drained to ensure that the upper class could travel in as much comfort as possible.
The issue surrounding the movement of livestock was non-negotiable. So where were sheep and cattle supposed to seek refreshment if there were no puddles along the way? And how would the condition of horses' hooves be ensured if there were no pools of water? It was ironic, therefore, that the husbandman became a slave to the same beast in the form of the coach-horse. He was also blamed for the cessation of the growing of barley and wheat; oats for the coach-horse now the greater priority.
And so it came to pass that ancient tracks only remained in their original state in remote areas where the service of the stage coach was no longer required; and whilst the ongoing development of wheeled transport forced some of the yet untouched tracks to be modernised, others became surplus to requirement where commuting was not necessitated. Nowadays such tracks are either half-lane and half-trackway or mere cleaves in the earth that are impossible to fathom; vivid imagination is required to sketch a flock of sheep being driven along its curtailed length. From where have they come? And what of their destination?
Isolated in these lonely spots, they were soon screened by nature's intervention and became hidden beneath arching thicket and dense scrub that boasted their blossoms and flowers when the seasons demanded. Up above trees stretched to the sky whilst below, birds, insects and bees built their new sheltered abodes. The canopy's protection also ensured wild flowers were safeguarded from the wind from spring through to autumn, whilst in summer it created a sultry biosphere. Furthermore, both the assured defence against the sun's midday rays and the guaranteed retention of rainfall, long after hill and vale have run dry, generated a haven for ferns and other green giants.
Illustrations by Paul Swailes
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 70
As summer progressed, so the presence of one wild flower was always evident along the path I had discovered the previous winter; a path following the course of two separate streams that ran within a deep natural cutting, hidden by overhanging trees. Enchanter's nightshade thrived in this shady region and yet, growing to fifty centimetres at its tallest, needed to be viewed en-masse in order to be appreciated. Such was the case where the Lower Stream disappeared into a buried pipeline at the Hushed Hillside, each plant showing off its numerous leafless spikes that elongate to where the any white flowers open and twinkle.
Another wild flower to prosper in these favoured conditions was hedge woundwort. It too found its own spot to flourish at the foot of the short steep track up to the Old Farm gate. On a dull day its deep reddish purple flowers can appear luminous, packed as they are in whorls that form a dense, pyramidal spike. Its unpleasant smell, especially when bruised, can, however, be a turn off to the admirer; as it must have also been for ancient folk who had the plant used on them to staunch bleeding or heal their wounds.
Illustrated by: Paul Swailes
Bramble blossom on the other hand is happy in both sun and shade. It could be spotted immediately after descending Jacob's Foot, the small flight of wooden steps at the eastern end of the pathway. There are over four hundred species of bramble in Britain, the blossom always five petals but the colour ranging from white through to purplish pink. My favourite country name for bramble is brummeltykites. Folklore says that brambles should not be picked beyond Michaelmas 'else the devil will defile them'; a saying based, one assumes, on the likelihood that any blackberry picked after this date will have probably gone over. Its leaves were once used as a remedy for burns whilst its branches were placed around graves to keep bad spirits away. Attempts to cure diseases were also undertaken by walking people beneath an archway of brambles.
At Tumble Bridge where the calming sound of a gentle waterfall could be heard, one would often admire sporadic wood avens - or as the plant is also known, herb bennett. With their five yellow petals spreading to form a cup shape, the flowers were once hung in country homes to keep the devil away. Its fruits meanwhile have hooked prickles that enable them to catch onto fur and clothing.
Ahead of Borderbay Bridge where the Top Stream runs beneath a simple wooden structure and heads away from the path to border two farms before meandering towards a little bay, meadowsweet could be found making the most of the damp streamside conditions. Creamy white and thickly clustered, its flowers were held sacred by druids and were used by witches to enable them to leave their bodies. On a more down to earth basis, literally, the plant was also once used on floors to sweeten the air. Elizabeth I was particularly fond of the plant and would request it be strewn across the floor of any home she was visiting.
The high banks recede either side of the bridge, dispersing the trees and inviting three different wild flowers to make the most of the daylight on offer. On the nearside the commonest of the willow herbs, the broad-leaved, displayed their small deep pink flowers made up of four notched petals. An irritating weed to many gardeners, the plant's relentless invasion is thanks to its hairy seeds that easily disperse in the wind.
Meanwhile an outstanding lone marsh thistle stood beside the bridge with its headed cluster of deep purple flowers bursting from the tip of a stem some four feet tall. A great attraction for bumble bees, its traditional appeal for human consumption was to eat the young stems raw as part of a salad. On the far side of the bank a large clump of hemlock stretched out - so thick, the density of the flat white topped flower heads pulled the rest of the plant into the river and diverted the course of its water. Conspicuous by its purple spotted stems and its unpleasant smell, the plant is poisonous; Socrates is reputed to have drunk a fatal infusion as a means of his execution. Its country name, devil's blossom, is self-explanatory.
Just where the banks rose again to create a new archway of branches, a wild flower that enjoys woodland margins was in good number. With their off white umbrels, sometimes with a hint of pink,
hogweed is also a plant to avoid as it can give out a substance that causes the skin to become sore or blister in sunny weather; unless of course you particularly want to pick the young leaves which apparently taste like asparagus when cooked! It was once an economical source of food for the household pig, hence its name.
At The Glue, a boggy area that gave a hint to the embryo of the Lower Stream, some escapee meadow buttercups could be seen along the ridge of the banks. With their five shiny yellow petals, the plant always reminds me of how children once held them beneath each other's chins to see if they liked butter. The plant was also once held around the neck as a supposed cure for lunacy whilst the roots, ground up with salt, were said the help cure the plague.
At Hangman Peek, where a trough in the bank acts as a perfect frame for Little Hangman, daylight from a further break in the overhanging canopy had encouraged a resplendent display of red campion. Its Latin name is silena dioice; silenus being possibly from its red complexion [it has five deeply notched petals] and its jolly appearance in winter; dioca from its meaning of 'two houses', based on each plant having only one sex and so needing two plants to produce seeds. It is also known as bachelor's buttons - in the sixteenth century women wore the flowers beneath their aprons to entice men.
Both red campion and enchanter's nightshade were in evidence at the Hidden Falls, but it was a profusion of herb Robert that always caught the eye here. Boasting their small dish shaped flowers, each one's orange stamen blended with the five deep pink petals. However, in western Britain the flowers can sometimes be white. Here is also a smaller flowered sub-species known as little robin, a rarity only to be found in western as well as southern Britain.
Finally at Lower Ash, where an ash tree's branch had partly split and now lay horizontally across both banks, a trio of one of my favourite wild flower species leant out to greet me - foxgloves. All three displayed a plethora of deep pink bell shaped flowers, densely packed on their tall spikes. The origin of its name is believed to be a corruption of the word 'folks and 'gliew', the latter an Anglo Saxon word for an instrument with many bells. Fairy bells is a country name for the plant as it is believed that the flowers ring out to summon the fairies; unfortunately if a human hears the ringing, they are supposedly destined to die! On a more realistic note [unless of course you believe in fairies] William Withering is famed for making a great medical breakthrough in the treatment of heart failure by extracting digitalis from the plant and testing it on turkeys. The plant's Latin name is diigtalis purpurea. It is of course now used widespread and is a great benefit to millions of people worldwide.
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 69
In January 2011 I discovered a path near to where I lived, a path described in my last two articles. Its creation came about through both natural and human intervention. Nature was the originator when a small river began burrowing its way into the earth, gradually cutting in between two sloping fields. Over millions of years a passageway was formed. This river would eventually divert its course. However, boggy ground lay ahead, perhaps the sign of a natural spring; for just beyond a new stream was born, one that would continue the channelling left off by its fluid big brother. In time arching trees grew out of the top of the high banks allowing Mother Nature to construct one of her natural long tunnels. But this was a subway man could only enter when Mother Nature chose as it required the summer heat from her sun to dry out the stream before the ground could be tolerable for human feet.
Man then intervened, gullies were dug out and embankments built up so that a permanent parallel bond was established between waterway and pathway. In time even a diversion would be erected, courtesy of a ridge of earth allowing the walker to avoid the area of constant sodden ground.
But where were the walkers? In fact, so sparse were my encounters that I began to feel the path was my own. And so it came to pass that I started to christen certain points along the way. Little did I realise at the time that most of these were to have one thing in common, above them were breaks in the overhanging trees. And so, as spring arrived and then spring turned into summer, these pockets of daylight provided bursts of wildflowers that challenged the dominance of plants that love to flourish in shady and damp conditions.
Spring alone demonstrated this. By early May the deep cutting was loaded with the pungent aroma of garlic, the path being lined with ramsons' nodding white flowers as far as I could see. The occasional primrose or cluster of bluebells stemmed the flow but it was only at Borderbay Bridge that both plants had an opportunity to steal the limelight. It was a clever act, a line of bluebells running along the edge of the path whilst a line of primroses ran along the top of the concrete embankment. Where they met at a forty-five degree angle, a lone white garlic mustard plant stood directly at the tip of the yellow and blue arrow. It was as though the three plants were providing a natural pointer to guide any walker across the bridge.
Of course, by the beginning of August all of these plants had gone - even the ramsons' odious left-over! Greenery abounded by the way of ferns, nettles, dock, goosegrass and bramble. This last mentioned plant was, however, in blossom - for it is a weed of both waste grounds and woods. Both enchanters nightshade and wood avens were also enjoying the shade on offer, whilst meadowsweet, marsh thistles and hemlock took advantage of the dampness and water; and where there were breaks in the overhanging trees, plants such as foxgloves and meadow buttercups made the most of the daylight available.
But perhaps I shall save the exact details until next time and take you on a walk once more from Jacob's Foot to the Old Farm Gate, taking in the wildflowers along the way. For then it will be October, a nice time to think back and reflect upon the flora that summer provides in our countryside. For now, enjoy the rest of what the season has to offer!
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 68
The outlook upon a rural landscape is constantly evolving. Sometimes the transformation is instant such as a lightning bolt decimating a tree, a gorge created by a landslip or an explosion that leaves in its wake a deep crater. Other times the alteration may be swift but still noticeable. For example, a snowstorm can be monitored dramatically repainting the countryside brilliant white. So too can a hurricane be witnessed levelling a long established woodland. There are also the modifications mankind makes upon the scene, adjustments that one is able to observe at the end of a day's labour. And then there is the transition of each season, so subtle it goes unnoticed until we compare it against a previous point in time. There is, however, another facet that impacts upon any landscape upon which we look. It relates to events that took place millions of years ago when the type of rock beneath the surface played a key role, along with other factors, in laying out the contours of the surrounding land. Exmoor is a prime example.
The rock beneath most of Exmoor's surface originated from sand and mud deposits around 400 million years ago. Compressed over time into a solid mass, these two materials formed a soft sedimentary rock - ideal for water erosion. And so it was that over the proceeding millions of years Exmoor's characteristic deep valleys evolved with rivers often hidden by their hillsides' thick canopy of trees.
The pathway I had discovered and made reference to in my last article was indicative of Exmoor's evolution. For there were clear signs of powerful erosion; not only was the path some twenty feet beneath the fields on either side but the banks of the river were also extremely steep and, in places, near vertical. Where I left off last time, my path had bade farewell to one stream but was about to greet another. Having stepped back onto the past just beyond The Glue, I passed a couple of gullies that had been excavated to provide drainage from the fields above. These bleeding channels contained delicate trickles of water, everlasting in their silent descent as they formed the embryo of a stream. Within thirty or so strides the stream was born at The Hidden Falls where tumbling fluid was heard but not seen, concealed behind tightly packed foliage on a sheer edge of the natural cutting.
As the refreshing sound faded into the background so the recess narrowed, the area dimmed and dampness filled the air. Fernbank had been reached. The stream, maturing with every step that I took, dawdled peacefully and contentedly as though having all the time in the world to reach whatever watercourse it was destined to meet. Only the whisper of the breeze through the overhanging ash and oak trees and the occasional tap of one leaf upon another amongst the Hart's Tongue Fern could disturb the silence.
As the ferns dispersed so the stream straightened its course to allow an unhampered view of any forthcoming features en route. The next could not have been more simplistic, just two lengths of timber embedded into the earth to allow a dry passageway where the stream chose to swap sides. The Kissing Bridge was unsophisticated yet intimate, a place for lovers to stop and embrace with only their reflections as onlookers. Insignificant in its structure, the bridge acted as a precursor to Hangman Peek; a place where if one walks too quickly, a brief dip in the bank is easily missed and with it a perfect snapshot of the peak of Little Hangman. Never was a hilltop so beautifully framed.
The stream then took a gentle curve before straightening again, all the while gathering in depth, speed and amplification. But at the Hushed Hillside its waters were muted as the stream entered a pipeline buried beneath the earth. Sporadic greenery dotted the incline above, hinting at a landslip in recent years which probably damned up the stream and led to the required pipe work. A little further on the forces of nature were evident again when I reached Lower Ash. Still alive and flourishing, the ash's trunk lay safely in situ, supported by the opposite bank as it bridged both walkway and waterway. With the latter now back in the open air, its disappearance and re-emergence had mirrored an adolescent who leaves the nest to train or study and whose development goes unseen until they return home a young adult. For the stream had reappeared as a force now to be reckoned with.
What a tonic it is to be in the company of a babbling brook; and what better place to rest and appreciate its therapeutic tones than at the Old Farm Gate a little further downstream. Rusting and held together by timeworn lengths of twine, this long disused means of access still had a meaningful role to play as a lean-to for any person seeking the opportunity to let their thoughts carelessly drift like the leaves upon the flowing water. For as the stream had whispered previously, we have all the time in the world.
Illustrations by: Paul Swailes
RURAL REFLECTIONS NO 67
I have a friend who has what could be regarded as rural claustrophobia. Although I have known her for some years her condition, if it can be deemed as that, only came to light when she came to stay with us after we had moved to North Devon; and even then, not until the day of her departure. Over one final brew, she said how much she had enjoyed her stay, but then concluded with complete honesty [like only true friends can] that she could not live in North Devon. It was far too enclosed for her liking and did not compare with the open countryside of the South Downs close to her Brighton home.
I argued that the vastness of the Downs stripped away the many layers of detail that North Devon had to offer, the patchwork quilt fields, undulating valleys, busy streams and wooded slopes. She conceded the point but reiterated that the steep contours within my local peninsula still made her feel hemmed in. Arousing a need to defend my home soil [note: this was in BST time - Before Soaring Turbines], I remarked that one might feel justifiably unnerved driving, for example, through the narrow passage of Cheddar Gorge or within the precipitous mountains of Glencoe. But hardly up and down the rolling hills surrounding us.
My friend then emphasised that it did not matter how shallow or steep the valley may be. She needed to be in the open. To feel free. And it all related to her childhood; more specifically growing up on an island and being acutely aware from a young age that, with water surrounding her in whatever direction she looked, her adventures and explorations were limited. Put simply, she felt trapped - a feeling which, every time she ventured onto the Downs, she could expel.
Like my friend, I too use the countryside to take me back to my youth, though unlike her I seek out the complete opposite in order to invoke a pleasurable childhood memory, one I made reference to in my last article. It relates to the hideaways my school pal and I would seek out in the local parks, woods and alleyways; or camps as we called them, even though all the items one would expect to find in a survival camp were imaginary.
I came across one such hideaway when I discovered a path running adjacent to a stream in a deep recess - just the sort of place in which my dear friend would feel undoubtedly trapped! The path was rarely explored, as making it part of a circular walk required using the farm road at one end and then taking a significant and strenuous detour. Yet the path was at the same time exceedingly well maintained and for the third of a mile or so that it ran, it had plenty of variation. I soon grew fond if its quirkiness and began to think about what names my school pal and I would give the path's notable stops en route.
Jacob's Junior was the first to be christened, a small flight of steep wooden steps that descended from the tarmacked road. A sheer bank neighboured the path's right hand side as it headed off from Jacob's Foot, whilst on its left a young river ran below having emerged from under the farm road's cattle grid. Its clear water rushed over the large grey and mauve boulders, deflecting splashes against a tall bank on the left. Initially the path ran faultlessly straight, its uniformity dictated by embedded symmetrical logs. Tumble Bridge was soon reached, a basic wooden structure enabling water to flow underneath it and into the river from an adjacent fierce yet narrow waterfall. Before long the hastening river's passageway was dictated by deep concrete embankments steering it 90 degrees beneath the path at Borderbay Bridge. An exact replica of the previous bridge, its name reflected the river's destination after darting off within a natural dip in the bank by the path; for this river would now act as a border between two farms and then head underground, occasionally re-emerging to greet local inhabitants, before flowing out and into a little bay.
Although my path was now devoid of running water I soon reached The Glue, an area so boggy that another walkway had been created on a small embankment in order to bypass the main path. Looking around I could see gullies cut into the high sided banks allowing water to run off the sloping fields; hence the area being so wet under foot. It also validated the sound of something I could hear close at hand but was unable to confirm with my eyes. For the squelchy ground around me was the embryo of a stream about to begin its infant life just around the corner, one that would develop into adolescence as it followed the remainder of the path's course.
Together both track and waterway would provide different environments in which a wide variety of wildflowers are able to flourish. But I will save that for next time. For now, I will leave you with a wildflower I observed just beyond The Glue. It grew unaccompanied yet quite content, making the most of an unpretentious opening that allowed sunlight to reach the base of the bank by the path. There, in all its glory, grew a perfectly formed primrose; or to call it by its Latin name, prima rosa, the first rose of spring. Happy Easter.
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 66
Although the phrase 'never work with animals or children' has probably been said by thespians for centuries, it was the juggler and comedian W.C. Fields who made the quote famous. Without doubt they are words that have also been uttered by countless celebrities ever since - just watch an old episode of 'It'll be alright on the Night'.
Whilst Fields' proclamation referred to his acting profession, it cannot be said to relate to all lines of work. Moreover, when it comes to the care industry and in particular to the care of people with dementia, the addition of children or animals can enhance care towards them. Blend both together to create an infant animal and the recipe will result in an almost guaranteed success.
I cite as an example a lady I once knew who lived with quite progressed dementia in a care home where I worked. Although she was able to understand guidance from a member of staff up to a point and so comprehend what was being said to her to some degree, she gave no visual or verbal response. Day after day she never spoke and throughout every day her face remained utterly expressionless. Until that was I brought into work with me our twelve week old black Labrador, Bourton.
When he entered the lounge where the lady was sitting, her eyes immediately locked onto him. Gone was her characteristic distant stare, instead her eyes displayed an intense interest in Bourton's curiosity as he went about sniffing foot stools, poofs and fluffy slippers. Satisfied that he had received sufficient attention from one resident, he then moved onto the next though not before he had fully investigated their lounge footwear.
And then Bourton reached her. She leant forward in response, her eyes still mesmerised by this bundle of black wagging fur. Bourton reacted by jumping up at her legs. Clearly some sort of engagement between them was taking place. I stifled my impulse to tell him to get down and instead went across and picked him up. Instinctively she put her arms out to take him from me. Staying utterly calm, Bourton was happy to be taken into her arms. Slowly she positioned him like a mother cradles a baby and began gently rocking him. And then I saw an image of the lady I had never witnessed. A contented smile upon her face. Somewhere, deep within her mind, a memory had been evoked. To what point in time her thoughts had travelled, in which location she believed to be and indeed whom she was cradling, only she knew. But of this I am sure, a lovable black puppy had unlocked a memory that aroused a feeling of happiness that she was able to express.
Whilst some people with no cognitive impairment may enjoy rocking a furry puppy as though it was a baby, there are others for whom the notion holds no yearning. Yet there is a third group of people who would cherish such an opportunity but feel that the ordinance of adulthood forbids such immature behaviour, indeed, one could argue that our lady's dementia excused her from openly enjoying her childish act. Regardless of which group we fall into, one fact remains, the child inside us never goes away. For evidence, just ask any adult who took part in a board game during the Christmas period!
For me personally, it is a new rural discovery that can ignite those juvenile stirrings within me In an instant my mind can be transformed to childhood days creating camps in the local park with my best pal, each one christened a name to reflect its characteristics whether it be a natural pond hidden away, a dense copse of trees or a deep natural dyke. And it was whilst living in Combe Martin that I discovered a pathway right on my doorstep that allowed my imagination to be transferred back to those days. Walking that path for the first time, I permitted myself the opportunity to become a child once more. It was a path that wound its way in a deep recess, naturally created over thousands of years by the stream that ran within it. Before the path was created, the recess merely housed a mud track that in winter became hidden beneath the excess water running into the stream off the sodden fields. Now footpath and flowing water equally shared the flat, narrow base. Within a week I had christened various places along the path and imagined my pal and me using these as stop off points en route where we would discuss our plans and dreams. These place names along with the amazing abundance of spring wildflowers with which each camp was adorned is something I will save for the April issue.
RURAL REFLECTIONS No. 65
The dawn of December heralds the conclusion of an annual personal period of reflection that begins in August. It is triggered by rural events surrounding me and in particular the sight of an occasional leaf endeavouring to conceal its yellow colour amongst the plethora of green shades. Its success, however, becomes futile when the tree decides to prematurely terminate the leaf's summer tenancy; and if one regards the leaf as a tenant of the tree, then the tree is merely a letting agent working on behalf of its powerful landlord, the sun. For not only does August bear witness to the embryo of autumn; it also observes the demise of the long summer evening.
September and October monitor the constant invasion of darkness over daylight and the gradual dominance of a bronze countryside. By November the image of two people going for an evening walk in late summer sunshine down an English country lane has suddenly become a distant memory. Bring the same walk forward one season and one immediately thinks of Ivor Novello's song, "We'll Gather Lilacs in the Spring". Written for his musical romance "Perchance to Dream", the song became the most popular and enduring of all those in the musical. With an evocative tune, the emotive lyrics describe the yearning for parted couples to be reunited with their loved ones when they "come home once more".
Although the lyrics refer to soldiers coming home from World War Two, the song has been performed at most musical events commemorating the anniversary of the start of World War One; an anniversary that made me go into a deeper reflective mood at the start of November when I noted the annual arrival of the commemorative poppy. For me, this year's Remembrance Sunday not only highlighted the 100th anniversary of the start of the War to End all Wars, it was the first Remembrance Sunday since being kindly given my paternal great-grandfather's World War One medals by my cousin. It was also an opportunity to recall the stories my mother had told me about the harmful psychological effects that the Great War had on her father.
This year also marks another family anniversary, for it is ten years since the reunion I arranged which brought together under one roof many of my maternal cousins and their families - a subject I wrote about in my Rural Reflections article in December 2004. So many memories, so many reflections.
But come December my mood alters. Rather than hankering for green woodland canopies, I am making the most of the gold that is left as well as appreciating other trees that have returned to their raw nudity. I also start to savour once more views that have been hidden since late spring; and as for the dark evenings, by December I have adjusted. For the curtains are now drawn not only to keep out the cold of the night but to keep in the warmth of the open fire; and as the month marches on, allowing the evening to invade into late afternoon, I embrace the darkness and recognise its value in allowing twinkling and flashing Christmas lights to be at their most effective.
The Christmas and New Year season passes and within a few days there are the first whispers that daylight has stemmed the flow of darkness. For the tide has turned and the winter solstice has passed. Temperatures may not reflect this, but our countryside still notices. The wild flora and fauna of early spring begin their creation. There is much to look forward to.
I am also looking forward to a number of personal anniversaries in 2015. I shall celebrate my own half-century; my school pal and I will celebrate a sapphire friendship; my partner and I will celebrate a silver relationship; and we shall also celebrate a tin relationship with the Archers, for it is ten years since we gave up television and became AA's - Archers Addicts! For those who do not listen in, The Archers' storylines run parallel with real-life rural issues of today. One of these is currently following a family considering moving North as a result of a road being built directly through their farm. But there is a second storyline running alongside this, concerning the farmer's mother who has an extended family still living in Ambridge. Residing as she does with her son and his family, does she move North with them and leave behind the rest of her family?
As I approach fifty I have suddenly felt a need to be nearer family again. And, whilst I very much miss the beauty of the North Devon landscape, our move away, pre-empted though it was by circumstances beyond our control, has brought many positives. I am closer to family; the new home still ticks all four boxes [read Rural
Reflections 59]; and it has brought about new rural discoveries to explore in the coming year. For that is
essentially what New Year is all about: making new plans to do new things and to discover new places - places which can be right on your doorstep. Next time, I'll tell you of a rural discovery I made when we moved to Combe Martin a few years ago - and it could not have been much closer to my doorstep!
But for now, may I take this opportunity to wish you a very Merry Christmas and a peaceful New Year.
RURAL REFLECTIONS NO. 64
It wasn't exactly 'Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun', more a case of flummoxed dogs and one Englishman out in the midsummer rain!
The cows were pretty intrigued too. And who could blame them? They were after all observing a rather bizarre scene, one that had been the consequence of the interception of precipitation - in other words, plants catching hold of rain droplets which were destined for the root systems of the underworld.
I have always struggled with the word droplets when it comes to rain. It is too complimentary in my view. But then rain is at the bottom of my weather list, with easterly winds one place above it. Combine the two, so that it feels like the North Sea is being endlessly pummelled into your cheeks [albeit salt free], and I am not a happy bunny.
"Just get out in it, throw your hood back and keep going," I was told by a walker last winter. "You will soon get used to the rain and even come to enjoy it." So I tried it. And I didn't - on both counts.
I have. however. recently moved rain up one place and demoted easterly winds to the bottom on account of my experience as the afore mentioned Englishman; for I have come to realise that there is one situation when I enjoy personal participation with precipitation. The key requisite is a spell of dry weather. One that is just long enough for the soil to hint at cracking, for Lundy Island to be forgotten behind a constant heat haze and for tractors to throw up dirt particles so that they leave behind a thick trail of dust. With all three requirements met it is time for the weather gods to do a bit of polishing. Cue stage left, from the west, a plethora of wet grey dusters.
On the day in question, one such duster loomed ominously in the sky over Bideford/Barnstaple Bay. It is a sight which I have often witnessed since moving to Yelland, one that rarely stirs me into picking in the washing; for more often than not, the duster rips itself in half and soaks the North Devon peninsula and the inhabitants surrounding South Molton, respectively. The meeting place of the Taw and Torridge estuaries always seems to escape.
But driving home, having walked the dogs near Bideford, I could see that on this occasion Yelland was in for more than just a spit and polish. With a bit of luck I could get back in time to pick in the washing. It was then, however, that I made the irrational decision to let it all get wet and take a detour instead!
Turning into a country lane, I headed up and then through Westleigh before bringing my car to a halt at two farm gates where the hill reached its summit. As I stepped out of the car I immediately noticed a clump of red campion in the hedge-bank beside one of the gates, now fluorescent in the ever darkening atmosphere. Beside the other gate occasional umbelifers of hogweed and a solitary dog rose were struggling to stay upright in an ever increasing wind. By now Appledore had vanished and soon both estuaries were hidden behind rainfall. As the wind became gusty so the first droplets arrived. Then came a few more. Moments later the rainfall was constant - soon followed by the preordained deluge.
The resulting smell was intoxicating, none more so than from the hedge-banks, where, through intervention, grasses such as black bent, cocksfoot and timothy had held onto the falling precipitation. And by opening up their cells to allow moisture to enter, they had let out their own unique heady aromas.
While the dogs and the cows looked on, I stood and enjoyed the foolhardiness of being out in the midsummer rain.
Illustrations by: Paul Swailes
RURAL REFLECTIONS NO. 63
It is mid-afternoon as a teenage boy takes the family's golden retriever for a walk through the local woods. The distinctive trill of a nearby wren is momentarily overwhelmed by the whine of an airliner decreasing in speed on its gradual descent into Heathrow Airport. Boy and bitch exit the woods and walk between two fields along a path recently narrowed by a bounty of white umbelifers that brush against the boy's arms. The boy visually acknowledges them and in so doing espies smaller flowers beneath the shady canopy. Noting their patriotic display, he wonders if the differing red, white and blue flowers are like those in his parents' garden in having familiar as well as Latin names. His pondering is then distracted as he looks up to observe another descending airliner with whirring engines that continually lower in pitch like the song of the greenfinch on a lone copper beech close by.
The wildflowers cease where the path runs between symmetrical high panelled fences cloaking two gardens. Adolescent feet and canine paws then feel pavement beneath as they tread the streets that represent the suburb of London in which they have lived. As he walks, the boy recalls recent enjoyable days spent with friends during the spring half term. It has been later than usual, running into the first week of June and meaning that the last day of his school holiday coincides with a family celebration. Seeing his close and distant relatives has always excited him, a feeling he feels hard to share with his peer group; for they seem to prefer the company of friends ahead of family.
As he reaches home he smells the distinct aroma of food being bar-b-q'd in the back garden and hears joyful conversation and hearty laughter. Everyone has arrived. Handshakes, hugs and kisses are taking place as another airliner purrs its way up above into Heathrow Airport. Whilst father is at the bar-b-q and mother is busy bringing out bowls of salad, aunts and uncles chat in seated groups on both the patio and the top lawn. A net has been put up across the lower lawn where the boy's brothers and nephews are playing badminton.
"Come on Uncle Steve!" one of his nephews calls out. "We've been waiting for you to get back. It's your turn to play!"
It was hearing my name being called out that jolted me. Where was I? As I looked around some things seemed similar. I was sat amongst family in a large back garden. Salad was being prepared indoors whilst on the patio meat was being cooked upon a bar-b-q. Just for a moment its sizzling noises were outstripped by the sound of an airliner's whirring engines decreasing in speed - heading over towards the suburb of London where I lived as a child. For it was my brother-in-law who was stood by the bar-b-q and my niece's children calling out my name - wanting me to play table tennis rather than badminton. Meanwhile two German shepherds sought shade upon the lawn having been walked earlier in the day through a local wood on the Surrey border. Moreover, a wood reached via a path that had been enveloped with cow parsley which in turn had provided a canopy for campion, stitchwort and bluebells; names of wildflowers, along with many others, that have become so familiar to me through coming to live in North Devon.
Illustrated by Paul Swailes
RURAL REFLECTIONS NO. 62
Hope Springs Eternal - and I am eternally hoping for a decent spring, something that was hard to envisage just a few weeks ago. Yet as I sit to write this article the outside thermometer is reading 88 Deg F and the forecast is for a settled period of dry weather. The sky is cloudless and, almost overnight it seems, the rural landscape has awoken from the sodden days of January and February. Signs of spring are in the garden too. Bees are industrious upon the winter heather, celandine is dotting the lawn, the camellia bush is flowering and a small tortoiseshell butterfly, the first butterfly to be observed this year, is basking in the warm sunshine. And this is just the start of spring bursting forth.
But my mind is not in forward-thinking mode. Instead it is in reflective mood, the result of a recent visit from a relative. She brought with her three medals that had been in her brother's possession for over ten years. Locked away in his safe, he had initially assumed they were associated with a relative on his mother's side of the family. It was only when a friend asked to see them that a name was pointed out to him, one that was inscribed on the outer rim of one medal and on the back of another [the backs were difficult to see as the medals were mounted]. It was the name of both his father's and my father's paternal grandfather, Charles William McCarthy. More significantly, my cousin had expressed a wish that I should have them. I was overcome with emotion and could not thank him enough. For I was now the honourable keeper of my great grandfather's World War One medals. Viewing them for the first time in my life was made more poignant by the fact that I was doing so one hundred years since the start of the "war to end all wars". Moreover the sight and touch of his 1914-15 Star, his British War Medal and his Victory Medal made the Great War real to me.
As is often the case with genealogy, discoveries merely lead to even more questions and whilst further research would solve some mysteries, one question would forever remain unanswered. How did he feel when he received his medals? It is a question perhaps only those who have been in active service for the defence of their country can possibly answer. I can only speculate.
The effect upon the receiver of any tactile award will vary. In the case of my great grandfather, perhaps it gave a sense of justice to his actions or maybe even helped him with a sense of loss. For others, such as an Olympian competitor, a silver or bronze medal may help with the disappointment of not winning, whilst a certificated award for exam success makes the hard work put in by a student worthwhile. A certificate for vocational achievement on the other hand will instil self-confidence and self-belief in the worker. Then there is the medal awarded for actively taking part regardless of where the competitor comes but which still leaves the participant with a feeling of self-worth.
Some people, however, receive materialistic accolades merely to fulfil their egos. Such recognition is often for good deeds and whilst the recipient of the good deeds benefits, the good-doer makes sure that everyone else knows about it.
There is, however, a recipient of an award who is the complete opposite to this. It is a person who goes about their daily business doing good deeds for people along the way and as a matter of due course, deeds that in turn bring pleasure to the people with whom they are interacting. Such a person does not expect reward, merely gratitude; and when given praise or an award will feel humble that they are being recognised for something they regard as a natural instinct or a vocation.
Mother Nature is such a person. And over the next two months she will strive to bless our countryside with an abundance of colour that cannot be attained at any other time of the year. She will expect no medals for the victory she has fought over the bleakness of winter, no certificate of achievement for all her hard labours. In her modest and humble way she will give pleasure to any observer who chooses to take notice.
Illustration: Paul Swailes
RURAL REFLECTIONS NO. 61
Illustrated by: Peter Rothwell
This is in contrast to the dramatic sloping ground both ahead and to my right, field's vast pasture eventually levelling where it meets its boundary hedge on the far side. From here on the ground stays even, ultimately becoming the flood plain for the Taw estuary. The estuary is a feature whose presence on the scene never stays still as a consequence of its lunar guidance. But today its master is invisible, the moon absent from any of the sky's blue punctures that are dotted above the vista. Instead it is the sun that directs visual proceedings, courtesy of one of the myriad of small shower clouds in the sky. Delicately decanting raindrops upon Lundy, the sun sends its beams through the shower and creates a sharp prism that vertically rises up from the island's flat and barren land; a land that, seen from a distance, impersonates a perfectly chiselled stone slab. The slab appears to sit upon welsh slate, such is the colour of the surrounding water. It is only when one looks closer to hand does one observe the maroon-grey liquid crossed by lines of white, some broken and others uninterrupted, created by the Bideford Bar. Its aggressive roar reflects recent stormy weather and overrides other noises afforded by distant sheep, nearby jackdaws and traffic on the estuary road. The never-silent Bar demonstrates the clash of personalities where the Taw and Torridge rivers meet. Watching this argument form the side-lines are the dunes of the Northam and Braunton Burrows respectively, both stretching out into the sea to sandwich the Bar.
Like the burrows, the remaining natural landscape is devoid of trees but for some clumps in the near distance and a wood of conifers sprawling across a far ridge. The barren rural portrait is enhanced by the unornamented peninsulas of Hartland Point and Baggy Point. It is therefore manmade structures that catch the one's eye whilst witnessing the blatant cloud transformations and the refined tidal fluctuations. One's visual radar espies at first the monstrous windmills upon Fullabrook Down; the urban sprawl of Braunton and Wrafton; rotating blades that elevate the air sea rescue helicopter up and away from Chivenor air base; the Lego-like low bridge crossing the River Caen at Velator Quay; the small industrial estate and modest oil refinery that lay adjacent to the site of the old Yelland Power Station; the unemployed jetty pointing into the water like a little finger daring to test the temperature; Crow Point's compressed lighthouse; the snug cottages of Appledore; and the insignificant pylons that blend with the green hills behind them to go almost unnoticed.
One feature, however, continually draws the eye whilst stood at the gate. It is a white building built into the cliffs that can be viewed from any high ground (and low ground along parts of the estuaries) surrounding the vast Barnstaple and Bideford Bay; a building that is an icon of the 1930's Art Deco period; a building that acts as a beacon in summer hazes, autumn mists, winter drizzle and spring sunshine - the Saunton Sands!
RURAL REFLECTIONS 60
I recently came across my first Rural Reflections article. It was written at the height of the foot and mouth outbreak and made reference to the extent to which wind direction was playing its infectious part in determining where the disease spread. I likened the wind's pronounced visual impact to the Great Storm of 1987, a storm that could be clearly mapped out by viewing its path of destruction from the air. As is my disposition, I tried to look upon the storm's urban and rural devastation across southeast England with a positive outlook. I filled half a glass with water and saw through the half full section the new trees that had been planted where their forebears had stood; forebears that, where possible, had been left alone and allowed a respectable death so that their decaying trunks could become food and shelter for woodland creatures great and small.
However, by looking through the half empty section of the glass I was chillingly reminded that Mother Earth had chosen to carry out her re-landscaping in one swift visit. She had forgotten that mankind is a creature of habit and that the human race does not cope well with change; and even more so when that change occurs overnight, whether it be literally or metaphorically.
My maiden article supported this latter point by likening the great storm to clearance work that we had recently undertaken in our garden. Trees had been felled, nettles severed, and brambles uprooted; actions that could be viewed through both halves of the glass. On the one hand we had robbed wildlife of a long established source of refuge and shelter; on the other we had allowed daylight to return to surface level, so encouraging previously suffocated wild and cultivated plants to bloom and flourish.
Yet there was one key aspect upon which the two clearances differed. Where Mother Nature had implemented her change without explicit warning and literally overnight, ours was planned and carried out over the course of six months. That's not to say we too could have undertaken our clearance of all the foliage overnight; a rotavator would have seen to that. But by refining the garden manually - albeit back breaking - meant that the transformation could be savoured over a longer period of time.
Of course Mother Nature knows in her heart that the human race copes better when change is gradual. It is for this reason that she subtlety transforms one season into the next. It is also why she ensures that even in the depths of winter an occasional red campion will peek out from a hedgerow; a reminder of the floral abundance that will progressively adorn our country lanes come spring. Remember - and I have written this many times before - that come Christmas day, the shortest hours of daylight have passed; and once the festive period is over the production lines in Mother Nature's factories will choke and splutter back into life.
RURAL REFLECTIONS 59
Two benches have previously featured in articles I have written, one of which is situated on Cairn Top, a summit southwest of Ilfracombe. At 550 feet above sea level, its northerly view takes in the seven peaks and troughs of the undulating Tors, Ilfracombe's western fringe, the eastern slopes of Score Valley and the high points of Big Hangman and Holdstone Down on Exmoor. The vista appreciates a wide panoramic outlook to the Bristol Channel and the Gower peninsula beyond; and on a clear day the Pembrokeshire coastline.
The plaque on the bench reads: "Special Memories of Mum and Dad. The Folks Who Lived on the Hill". A simple inscription, yet one so fitting for two people [more apt perhaps for my father] whose key specification when looking for property was to live up high and have a view. My father also had a requirement for his home to be in the countryside, or at the very least on the outer fringes of a conurbation so that green fields were within stretching distance. And who could blame him? The commute home from Smithfield Market was far from pleasant, a journey that lengthened year by year as road haulage increased. Yes, the drive to work was traffic-free guaranteed; but at the expense of starting work at half-past three each weekday morning!
In contrast my mother never fully exhaled the 'Big Smoke' inside her. The countryside wasn't really her 'sort of thing' - although towards the end of her life she did express a regret that she had not learnt more about the wild flora and fauna around her. That did not, however, prevent her from expressing a wish to have her ashes scattered outside Marks and Spencer's in Epsom - the one and only place where, so she claimed, she was truly happy. I'm rather pleased to say she was dissuaded from this idea! Forever the city girl, she needed to live where 'life' was never too far away.
Which brings me back to the bench upon the hill. When I asked the Cairn Conservation Carers to erect a bench in memory of my parents, I had no idea how significant the view from Cairn Top would be in portraying their lives. There was the hustle and bustle of the town below acting as a reminder of their urban background; their preference for suburbia mimicked by the Shields, a steep estate clinging to Score Valley on the very edge of town; the livestock on the surrounding hills a reflection of my father's livelihood; and my mother's love of seaside excursions along with my father's fondness for the sea reflected in Ilfracombe's coastline and the Bristol Channel.
Having these subtle recollections within the bench's panorama became a great source of comfort through those early and sometimes raw days of grief. But the reminders also bestowed upon me an unexpected yet much needed sense of resolve: that my parents' traits would continue to live on in me. For I, too, had inherited the very characteristics of my mother and father that were sketched out in the vista before me: a preference for the countryside rather than the city whilst also having a need to live amongst civilisation; and a strong desire to have wildlife, livestock and wildflowers close by whilst also being near to the coast.
Perhaps my parents were trying to tell me something. If that were indeed the case, then I did not listen. That leads me on to the second bench I have written about, a bench along the country lane connecting Dolton Beacon and Riddlecombe, a hamlet where we lived for fifteen months. Yes, a hamlet. No shop, no pub, no church, no village hall. Just very pleasant properties in a very pleasant hamlet. To give it fair due, it ticked two of the boxes. Firstly, it had wildlife and wildflowers on tap and in abundance. Secondly, livestock was provided courtesy of stabled horses opposite, sheep being driven by farmer and dog along the hamlet's thoroughfare, and a field with Jersey cows to the rear - making a cup of tea whilst admiring their lovely faces is the one thing I do miss. But the nearest shop was two miles, the nearest village five miles and a trip into town meant going via Dolton Beacon if the needle on the petrol gauge was close to red. What's more, a trip to the coast was a planned excursion.
I am, however, pleased to say that a move to Yelland has resolved the problem. All four boxes are ticked. Bideford and Barnstaple are within easy reach. The Taw Estuary is a daily sight. The countryside is within stretching distance. And a horses' field borders our back garden, a garden where one can stand and hear the echo of bleating sheep; and where, if I listen intently, I can hear my parents whispering: "You have found it at last - a lovely home for you both. Enjoy it. For we will live on through you and enjoy it with you."
RURAL REFLECTIONS 58
When does a wildflower become a weed? Once it appears in a garden would seem the obvious answer.
However the Oxford English Dictionary 7th Edition defines a weed as 'a wild plant growing where it is not wanted and in competition with a cultivated plant'. This suggests that the question is subjective and that the definition of a weed is a personal one and solely dependent upon the person tending the cultivated land.
Some people of course choose to leave their entire garden uncultivated, a decision that can lead to neighbourhood disputes - particularly if a gardener is refusing to grow any plant that may be found in a wildflower reference book.
Both parties are arguably at fault. Whilst the neighbour with the untended garden insists that by leaving it untouched for years they are making their garden as rural as possible and therefore helping nature, one can argue that it will allow certain species to dominate; species that will inhibit daylight and consequently discourage wildflowers. Likewise whilst one can feel sympathy for the gardener having to uproot nettles and brambles that continually creep across from next door's wilderness, compassion can be limited if they are cultivating a garden purely for its cosmetic appearance, with no concern at all for wild flora and fauna.
At this point I should stress that gardening is not my forte. But that does not prevent me from appreciating gardeners who show empathy with wildflowers, whether by sectioning off a specific area or by allowing them to mingle within the lawn, amongst the flowerbeds or even in pots.
When spring finally arrived it soon became apparent that mingling wildflowers with cultivated plants had been the preferred gardening method of the previous owner of the property into which we have recently moved. For example a few wild primroses lined the hedge at the back of the garden. The lawn was at times a yellow spray of lesser celandine. A semi-circle of dog violets appeared in the rose bed, in the shade of a conifer tree. Native bluebells had been left to flourish in other shady areas. Patches of germander speedwell bloomed amongst the daffodils and within the grass and in the flowerbed beneath the lilac tree was a lone wood anemone. One wonders how many other wildflowers will appear as summer progresses.
Some gardeners may regard any of these wildflowers as either 'nuisance plants' or flowers in the wrong part of the garden. To any of you who do feel this way I send a message, courtesy of an inscription on a small watering can ornament I unpacked when we moved: May all your weeds be wildflowers'.
RURAL REFLECTIONS 57
As a celebration of a forty year friendship that began when we were both five years old, my friend bought two copies of the same book.
Whilst one had been inscribed by him the other had blank pages for me to complete. Entitled 'Dear Friend, from You to Me', each page was headed with a question, the same as my friend's book to me, I had to answer each of the questions at the top of the page. Having accomplished the task I then discovered I had created, just as the subtitle stated, 'a journal of a lifetime'.
Initial questions asked about my early past, such as my first childhood memories and my favourite toys and games. Others related specifically to my friend including what I liked about him and whether there was anything about him I would change. Some were to do with both of us, like recalling the funniest things that had happened to us and what I would love us to still do together.
There were also questions that needed personal reflection including whether I had any regrets and if in hindsight there was anything in my life I would have done differently. Deciding what I would like my epitaph to read also required great deliberation. Yet the page that took the longest to complete was the one with the heading 'Tell me about the things that make you happy or laugh'.
After much contemplation I concluded that whilst laughter brings with it happiness, happiness alone does not require laughter. As a result I drew up two lists, the first relating to the things that make me openly laugh. These range from the specific, such as a particular sketch or script in a comedy programme to the generic, including being in the company of my friends.
Before drawing up my second list I considered what my own definition of happiness was and how this differed from contentment. Happiness, I decided, was 'an inner feeling that brings about an uncontrollable smile'.
I then began making a list of all the sights, smells and sounds that brought this about. When I looked down at my completed list I was surprised to discover that almost all of it related to nature.
Entering a cottage garden when all its herbaceous plants are in full flower is one such example. Taking in the scent of an old fashioned rose is another. As is the sound of a trickling brook on a hot summer's day or the sight that comes into view when turning a bend in a road and discovering a beech or oak woodland displaying its autumnal golden splendour on a hillside. Also the magnetic visual pull of flickering flames on an open fire in mid-winter, coupled with the occasional hissing and cracking of the wood, and pulling back the curtains to discover heavy snow falling or the dramatic scene when the clouds disperse allowing a low winter sun to glisten upon the virgin snow. Then there's that day in late winter when I look up at the sky and first realise that the evenings are just beginning to pull out once more, and that day in early spring when I walk the dog and feel for the first time that year the warmth of the sun penetrating through my jacket. As spring progresses, so my mouth uncontrollably smiles more frequently. A cherry tree laden with blossom, a huge splash of daffodils on a roadside, a carpet of bluebells on a woodland floor, bleating lambs skipping in a field, trees transformed by fresh green leaves and the beautiful sound of the dawn chorus - so much to look forward to as spring progresses.
RURAL REFLECTIONS 56
In my February article I wrote that 2012 could be a year of broken records, both Olympian and meteorological. The latter suggestion was based upon extremes in our weather conditions over recent years - extremes that have occurred with such regularity that, like the Olympic Games, one has come to view the excelling of previous records as a mere expectation.
This year our weather hardly excelled itself. But records were still broken. First we had the driest ever February, leading to hosepipe bans in the eastern counties of England. A warm and sunny March then lead to hopes of a spring that would be a carbon copy of recent years. There was disquiet, however, that each of these previous unseasonable springs had given false assumptions that summer had already arrived.
This year was to be no exception. Not only did spring dissolve as April progressed. Summer chose to make only the briefest of visits. For our flora and fauna this last summer was hardly a seasonal vacation, more an occasional excursion made on the days when the clouds chose to evaporate; days that were so rare we consequently experienced the wettest summer in over 100 years. Even the autumn weather gods failed to deliver on their tried and trusted guarantee: 'If during August cloud and rain be here, When school bells start ringing sun and blue skies reappear".
The absence of a prolonged or memorable spell of good weather will make this winter hard for some to bear, particularly those that suffer with S.A.D. But I may have a remedy. Every winter I endeavour to set myself an indoor project that will keep me occupied during the months of lesser daylight hours. This year I have taken on the mammoth task of sorting out all of my 'un-albumed' photographs. My system, placing each picture in an appropriately labelled box, is working fine, but it is the length of time that it is taking. Not only am I mulling over all the old photographs destined for the boxes labelled 'family', 'friends', or 'pets'. I am utterly losing myself in the pictures being prepared for the album entitled 'flora, fauna and landscape', but it is turning out to be quite therapeutic, for they are drifting me back to a time when our countryside was awash with varied and vivid colours.
I have come across pictures of wooded paths lined with ransoms or celandine, a lone violet peeking out from the ivy; a cherry tree loaded so heavy with deep pink blossom, its branches are forced to hang over a stream where newly born ducklings seek refuge, the dappled sunshine on a woodland floor carpeted with bluebells, a parade of foxgloves leaning out from a hedgerow, a line of swallows resting on a telegraph wire, a burnt orange sun sinking behind the Tors, a herd of Friesians seeking shade beneath the tall oak tree, a red admiral basking on an ancient stone wall and a low harvest sun pouring its rays upon the deep purple heather of Exmoor.
My partner and I have also been privileged to be given a book of which only a handful were published. Compiled by the father of a dear friend, it is a photographic record of his visits to public gardens and houses in Wiltshire, Somerset and Devon. Taken between the summers of 2005 and 2011, a study of the photographs enables me to do virtual walks around gardens such as Marwood Hill, Rosemoor and Castle Hill when at their very best, and more significantly allow me to forget about the dark wintry nights hidden behind my drawn curtains. So find yourself some photographs, a magazine or a book with pictures that reflect our countryside when it is lush with greenery and filled with its amazing varieties of deep colour. Remember, too, that as you wake on Christmas morning the winter equinox will have passed. Daylight hours will be on the increase again and gradually your curtains will be drawn a little later every day.
RURAL REFLECTIONS NO. 55
The Concise Oxford English Dictionary (11th Edition) defines 'rural' as 'relating to, or characteristic of, the countryside rather than the town'. Of the word 'reflect' it states, 'to embody or represent in a faithful or appropriate way'. The beech trees surrounding Riddlecombe, the mystery hamlet in my last article, will turn to gold during the next two months and in so doing will become one of the most appropriate representations of autumn.
The hamlet of Riddlecombe meanwhile has many appropriate features that reflect the countryside. Originally a combe farmed for generations by the Ridd family, it eventually developed into thirty or so dwellings. Bereft of a church or inn, its population was still able to justify three shops one of which combined as general store, post office and a one pump petrol station! All are now gone of course. Though the car has replaced the horse and cart, other features ensure the hamlet retains its rural character: sheep hurriedly driven along the main thoroughfare by farmer and sheepdog, horses slowly clip clopping in a yard, cockerels idly pecking at the verges and jersey heifers randomly drinking at the trough adjacent to my back garden fence.
On a personal level Riddlecombe also represents the twilight months in the life of our dear black Labrador, Gifford, who was put to rest in August aged 14. When we moved to the hamlet last October his legs were already too arthritic to go for walks. A wander to the end of the road was sufficient. There he would lay on the grass beneath the tall copper beech and we would sit on the bench for as long as was needed for him to regain his strength in order to manage the 200 yard stroll back home. At times he struggled, but he loved it, sniffing every blade of grass along the way. And when even that short amble became too much, he was content to just sit on the front lawn sniffing the air, listening to the sounds of livestock and wildlife and watching passers-by. Arthritis may have got the better of his legs but he was blessed with excellent hearing and sight till the day he died.
The death of a pet, friend, or family member brings about what one may regard as a period of reflection. Yet my dictionary defines reflection as 'a serious thought or consideration'. Perhaps in the case of when we mourn the word serious is too strong. I know from personal experience that in the days following the loss of a loved one I can be crying one minute, be in a serious and reflective mood the following minute but then be laughing the next. Thinking about Gifford is no exception. When I first realised he would no longer be there to fetch the post it broke my heart. It was even worse the first time I returned home from work. Not only was the post still on the mat, my slippers were still in the bedroom. Where was Gifford's lovely greeting? His tail wagging so profusely it caused the rest of his body to swagger. How proud he was to hear me coming down the garden path so he could retrieve my slippers in time for my opening the front door. I just sat on the bed and sobbed. Yet the next moment I was chuckling as I recalled how we trained him to yawn on command; and then laughed as I remembered the day on Putsborough Beach when he ran across the rock pools before suddenly disappearing, having misjudged the depth of the water!
If reflection involves serious consideration, maybe the word 'reminiscence' would better describe our thoughts when bereaved. For one is certainly looking back; but with happy as well as sad memories. Of course you do not need to be bereaved to reminisce. Friends, for example, can reminisce over old times. I am blessed to have a friendship that began over 40 years ago when we were both aged 5; and whenever we meet up we find ourselves either reflecting on the affairs of the day (grumpy middle aged men putting the world to right is another description) or reminiscing over previous times spent together. On hearing of Gifford's passing, he wrote these words:
"It is sobering just how much can happen in the space of a pet's lifetime. Due to all kinds of things that have happened, personal and worldwide, I think we are all different people to what we were in 1998 when Gifford came along - perhaps that's one of the reasons we have pets: to maintain a constancy when everything else in our lives insists on changing. If only they could talk."
The same can be said of the beech tree beneath which Gifford used to lay. If only it could talk. Appropriate, therefore, that Gifford's ashes were returned to us in a beech casket. It now rests beside the casket of his old pal Bourton. Together again on earth, it is comforting to know their spirits have been reunited up above. Farewell, Gifford. No more aches or stiffness. Run free once more with your old mates through the golden beech woods of heaven.
Illustrated by: Debbie Rigler Cook
Tall grasses sway in a summer breeze along the wide verges of a country lane, obscuring the hedge banks so that only the narrow hedges growing upon them are visible. Leaving the hamlet behind the lane straightens and, having passed a few field gates, reaches a tended area of grass surrounding a bench. A juvenile silver birch accompanies the bench, perhaps a favourite tree species of those to whom the bench is dedicated.
Rapid bird song rises up and over the hedge, courtesy of invisible skylarks hidden within the fields. Only the periodical announcement of a flock of starlings soaring low above challenges the skylark's audible monopoly. It is only as the starlings come to rest upon the telegraph wire that the skylarks cease their chitter chatter. But for the breeze rustling the leaves of the silver birch, all is quiet.
A minute passes by. Still the breeze offers no sound from the surrounding hills. Perhaps the current of air is coming from the south, a direction offering an uninterrupted, and seemingly uncivilised, view to Dartmoor. Between here and the moorland, the nearby fields gently slope before rising to meet the hedgerow lining the lane to Hayes; and beyond this second horizon, the moor itself some fifteen miles away.
Hayes farm 1534
A glance in the opposite direction confirms the breeze's southerly source, the steam from the chimney of the Ayelscott Feed factory being swept to the north. The silence at the bench, however, would be broken if the breeze were coming from the north; for it would episodically bring with it the swiping sound of turning blades. Invisible to begin with, the distinctive red cause of the noise would first appear above the line of trees on the horizon, then above the ever-rotating radar and finally above an apparent gigantic golf ball before rising vertically from Eaglescott airfield. Then, steering its course, the Devon Air Ambulance is, within moments, both visually and audibly a memory; and whilst the neighbouring inhabitants of North Heale would have heard every turn of its blades, the dwellings of Furze Barton, West Arson and Austins may not have even been aware, nestled as they are into the steep hillside beneath the radar station.
Meanwhile, the sound of another form of transport would give notice that the wind is coming from the west. Sat upon the bench, one would hear the distant hum of vehicles including the buses which, having climbed up from Dolton, then turn at Dolton Beacon to head either to Exeter or to Barnstaple. The wind would also bring with it the chugging of an old Ferguson working away tirelessly within the fields of East Westacott Farm.
Like the helicopter, both the tractor and the buses can be clearly seen from the bench (the latter as they pass along the western edge of Hollocombe Moor). But it is sounds brought in by an easterly wind whose sources remain forever out of site. The furthest to travel is the horn and rat-ta-ta-tat of the Tarka Line train whilst passing through, one imagines, Kings Nympton station. Nearer and just as rhythmic are the pealing bells of Ashreigney Parish Church.
Closer still and perhaps less melodious are the squawks of the peacocks residing at Churchwater, and the nearest of all are theneighing horses stabled in the nearby hamlet.
A pleasant bench to rest a while. But where is it exactly? And what is the hamlet? Why not get out a map and see if you can guess! Answers in the next article.
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 53
Buzzards are usually observed in pairs.The jay on the other hand is a solitary bird most of the time.Yet for other birds being part of the gang is the preferred lifestyle.
The house sparrow is one such species. Having been born and raised, fledglings will join up to form new flocks in late summer.During winter the new and existing flocks will then roost in dense shelter such as rhododendrons or hawthorn bushes.Each flock will have its own scout bird who is regularly sent out to look for food.Once located, the remaining flock soon follows; something I remember watching as a child when living in London suburbia having scattered my broken up crusts of toast across the back lawn.
Human scraps have always been a staple diet of the urban house sparrow, a factor dictated by the holes and crevices in buildings which are their preferred nesting site.The rural house sparrow meanwhile is just as happy nesting in a farm building where there is livestock whilst exploiting any arable food that can be sourced.
Although Breeding Bird Survey data indicate an increase in the house sparrow population in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the species has disappeared from other parts of Britain.Now a Red List species, it has declined in Britain by over 65% in recent years with the south and east of England most affected. Theories include leaded petrol affecting the insect population [a vital food source for young], modern buildings having fewer holes and crevices and a lack of winter food for the farmland house sparrow.
Another bird synonymous with flocks is also one of our most common, the starling.Up until the mid-nineteenth century it was relatively uncommon in Britain until, that was, Europes indigenous forests were cleared for farming. This encouraged the species further west to take advantage of the new cropped grassland, a favourite feeding habitat of the starling with a beak powerful enough to part the ground as it probes grass roots in search of invertebrates.
Such feeding grounds are not just restricted to farmland.Common and widespread in most habitats, I would often observe them probing our back lawn when we lived on the outskirts of Brighton. From a distance their plumage could appear all black but from my back window I would admire each starlings candescent green and purple shades. Yet their wonderful sheen appears to go unappreciated by some ornitholigists, perhaps because the bird is so common.It can also be regarded as irritatingly noisy, but listen momentarily and you will soon hear the mimickery of other birds or machinery.
Like the sparrow, a feeding flock will quickly form once one starling is seen pecking away more eyes to watch for predators! But they are no Bird Brain, having excellent memories for good feeding locations, once discovered it will always be under observation by at least one bird.
The feeding flock in our back garden numbered fifty or so a snippet compared to the many thousands that would amass on the dilapidated West Pier and a speck compared to the 30 million that come across the east coast of England every autumn migrating from Europe. Their arrival almost doubles our winter starling population.
We would see fewer in the summer months, a time when they prefer woodland and farmland for feeding.Both a help and a hindrance to the farmer, they can inflict great damage but will also consume large amounts of leatherjackets.
The diet of food consumed by certain species can alter over time. The long-tailed tit for example is increasingly adding peanuts to its main diet of insects; and it was whilst living in Ilfracombe that a flock would appear twice daily around 9 oclock and 6 oclock to feast on the peanut feeder. Their arrival provided an opportunity for their most delicate of pink coloured feathers on their shoulders and under parts to be admired not forgetting their long tails which are over half the length of the bird itself.
The long-tailed tits nest building is to be respected. Taking up to three weeks to construct, the nest is lined with up to 2,000 feathers, some of which are recycled from the bodies of dead birds. A mainly sedentary bird, it will move short distances form its nesting site in winter in search for food.In doing so, a family will join with other flocks until totalling around twenty. This group can often include other species of tits. Individual families are made up of parents, their offspring and any of the parents siblings who lost their own nest that year unable to go on to raise their own brood, the siblings would instead assist the parents with feeding their young.
Flocks of goldfinches meanwhile can be initially created by nesting together in a loose colony. Once the chicks have fledged, families then flock together where food is plentiful. Their diet includes thistle, teasel and dandelion seeds they are the only bird capable of reaching seeds buried deep within teasel flower heads thanks to their long, fine beak.
Unlike most other birds, goldfinches can hold food with their feet.In the past, however, it proved to be a disadvantage, the bird being caught and caged for its party trick.In order to have a drink the bird had to pull the strings of a cart full of water up a slope without letting go.They were also caged for their pleasant, canary-like, twittering song and striking plumage, in particular their bright yellow wing bars and their black, red and white striped head.
The species is increasingly using garden bird feeders, the possible result of a steady decline of food sources naturally. Where we now live we back onto farmland, one of the goldfinchs habitats, and have been fortunate to enjoy observing a flock in our garden all winter, sometimes totalling twenty three.Admiring their beautiful plumage, it is no wonder that their collective name is a charm of goldfinches.
RURAL REFLECTIONS 52
2012: WILL RECORDS BE BROKEN?
Illustrations by Paul Swailes
Between 2006 and 2007 I made a twelve month observation of the Cairn in Ilfracombe. On one walk taken on midwinter's day I made the following note:
Both the sound and the feel of Cairn Top's short grass crunching beneath my boots are foreign. How splendid to witness frost; and one so hard, the sight of a white landscape as I look out from the summit such a rarity.
A rarity indeed. It was to be the only frosty morning of what was to be a wet and mild winter. Yet the weather came as no surprise, mimicking as it did the mild temperatures of previous winters where wild flowers such as herb Robert, red campion and hogweed were unseasonably but regularly recorded.
The trend for mild winters led some people to misunderstand the consequences of global warming. Assuming as they did that seasonal temperatures would steadily increase, their misinterpretation gained affirmation when the spring of 2007 saw a prolonged and exceptional spell of warm weather. As a result, the Cairn's bluebells peaked well ahead of time. By early May they were already past their best; by mid-May they looked sorrowful, their stems having been flattened by a bombardment of heavy downpours.
The rain of late spring was to be a preliminary round to a summer fixture list crowded with wet days. June became the wettest on record; by the end of July it was officially the wettest early summer. It was also a summer where domestic heating systems regularly worked overtime, so cool were daytime temperatures. So what had happened to the 'warming' effect? Some suggested it was merely a one-off summer. Unfortunately not! Since 2007 summer weather records have continued to be broken - but in the wrong direction.
Many now argue that such unseasonable weather, often linked with extremities, is the true consequence of global warming. Its effect on nature, however, can be detrimental, with our recent spring and summer pattern just one example. Having been encouraged out of hibernation early by exceptional warm weather, survival suddenly becomes a challenge in unexpectedly low temperatures and subsequent food scarcity.
Unexpectedly low temperatures can also refer to winters of late. Indeed, the first hint North Devon had that winters may not always be mild and 'white free' came in February 2009 when the weather gods decided to play a trick on its inhabitants. Rather than sprinkling their usual packages of snow everywhere and giving the countryside a delicate white dusting, the gods decided to deliver it by parcel force instead!
Some people were frustrated at the havoc it caused. Ilfracombe, for example, was temporarily cut off from the outside world. But the scene it created both in Ilfracombe and across the rest of North Devon was purely magical. Unable to get to work, or indeed go anywhere, everyone just put on their big coats and boots and took advantage of an opportunity to observe our countryside shrouded beneath a white blanket. Residents from one village spoke to residents from another as they passed along a country footpath. Meanwhile complete strangers began having snowball fights in parks; and whilst all other plants had their spring preparation halted, the snowdrops were given the chance to stand tall and boast their splendour and resilience in the face of harsh conditions.
The snow soon melted and within days it had vanished. The same, however, could not be said of the following January. As each night passed, the temperatures plummeted, causing snowflakes to link with their next-door-neighbours, toughening in the process and turning transparent. Surfaces were soon suffocated beneath thick layers of ice, too thick for the sun's weak winter rays to penetrate. Indeed, if the musical chords of a bolero had been rolled out across the conurbations, Torville and Dean could have taken their choice upon which pavement to skate! What's more, they could have danced their routine without fear of interruption, concrete making a rare appearance; and just like it always does when it lingers in urban locations, the snow soon turned grey and looked dirty.
The countryside meanwhile remained bleached. Green blades of grass were concealed beneath the white. Hedge banks acted as buffers for drifts of snow. Tree branches became ledges upon which flakes could come to rest. Villages and woods mirrored the scene on the Christmas card that still stood on the fireplace; and whilst the card would be on view for only a few more days, the picture outside was intent on remaining unchanged for some time to come.
The angel on the tree that was removed on Twelfth Night in 2010 would then witness snow the following Christmas. This time, however, the snow was already in evidence before she was delicately removed from her box. And so it came to pass that for a third successive winter the snow lay heavy whilst temperatures reached new lows. This last winter again saw records broken although this time at the other end of the scale. Aberdeen, for example, recorded its warmest Christmas day [15 degrees] since 1920.
Autumn has also displayed unseasonable behaviour and broken records in recent years . In 2009 a period of southerly winds, unusual for the time of year, brought warmth which the trees interpreted as a return to summer. Concluding it was not yet time to dislodge their leaves, a bizarre scene unfolded in the parks with golden trees swaying heavily in strong winds and not a fallen leaf to be seen on any of the paths.
So with 2012 heralding the long awaited Olympics on home soil one wonders what records will be broken this year - both by mere mortals and the weather gods.
RURAL REFLECTIONS 51
Fullabrook: For or Against?
"It's a bit late complaining about them." I was told, "They're here now. And will be for the foreseeable future." It wasn't that I was complaining - more expressing my difficulty in accepting what I viewed as a blot on the North Devon landscape. Making a complaint about them would not have halted their arrival in any case, whatever form it took. For there are times when the powers above us enforce their wishes, despite the opposing views of those beneath them - regardless of how those views are formally expressed.
And so it came to pass that the opinions of many North Devon inhabitants, concerned about the visual impact on their stunning countryside, were tossed aside in favour of the need for an alternative form of energy. I was one of those who were extremely concerned. I did not, however, vent my feelings at any formal meeting, for I felt that this was one of those occasions when the decision had, in effect, already been made. The powers-that-be were not for turning. The blades of the wind turbines are.
Since the arrival of the Fullabrook Wind Farm [on an area surrounding Fullabrook Down] I have tried desperately hard to come to terms with its presence - as well as listen to the favourable arguments. But I'm still struggling, really struggling. Pre-scepticism has not helped, a view I expressed in a previous Rural Reflections article [Berrynarbor Newsletter, December 2008] which I wrote whilst on holiday in South Wales. Referring to the area's rural similarities with North Devon, I then noted how the two landscapes sharply differed industrially, our Welsh counterpart's natural horizon being frequently broken by naked flames, tall chimneys and the turning blades of turbines.
Illustrated by: Paul Swailes
Although the windfarms were in my view unsightly, those that I observed in Wales at least had a sense of planning about them; if not situated perfectly symmetrically, the turbines did at least look neat in their arrangement. The same cannot be said for Fullabrook. It is as though one of the directors, whilst looking over a map of the area, bit into a biscuit and where the crumbs fell a turbine was situated.
"They haven't got wires drooping in between them. That's what I like about the turbines", a colleague said. True. But at least pylons have some regimented order about them. They're also not as tall.
"I think they enhance the surroundings," a friend commented. Enhance? How can 22 brilliant-white plastic structures, each standing over 360 feet tall, enhance North Devon's unique rural landscape? In any case, my friend's comment carries no weight for he openly admits that he is an urbanite through and through with no appreciation for pastoral scenes. Living where he does, he's more likely to donate an original by Constable to the London City Mission, preferring instead to decorate his flat's walls with city skylines from around the world.
Another friend, living more locally, felt the turbines looked graceful. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. In my view a swan up above, neck outstretched and its flight feathers producing a hum as its wings beat slowly and powerfully, looks and sounds graceful. The sight - and hum - of the blades of a wind turbine? No.
"I'd rather have to look at them than a nuclear power station," I've been told. True. But I'd rather we had neither; not on land, at least. Let's be honest; if ever there was a case of "water here, water there, water, water everywhere," the British Isles has to be the perfect example - both with its rivers and with the surrounding seas - for sources of water and tidal power. "Our local charity is also hoping to benefit from one of the community handouts being offered by the windfarm company," they added. Fair enough. Having been involved in charity work I cannot argue against that point.
But one fact remains. Whether it's looking from high points such as Clovelly in the west, Exmoor in the east or Eaglescott airfield in the south, the turning blades will draw my gaze and, in so doing, hypnotise me into looking at them instead of the beautiful rural vista in which they are set. But at least that's only from North Devon's peaks. Thanks to the area's undulating countryside there are also just as many troughs where the turbines are hidden from view - unless, of course, you happen to live in Muddiford.
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 50
The old yew tree stands at the western end of the churchyard. Its disfigured, purplish-brown trunk displays a colossal girth from which, only ten feet from the ground, it splits into three immense branches. Each one immediately arches so that their off shoots create a broad and heavily shaded canopy. The tree's trunk has a very strong outer casing which is the sole support for the wealth of branches above, for its innards have been devoured as has a portion of its bark, spawning a natural doorway through which the human visitor can enter.
This yew is more than just old. It has gained immortal status. It was around when the Celts decorated its branches with the heads of their victims; and then observed their descendants convert to Christianity. They built a church to keep the tree company and made it a symbol of their new found faith. Continually outliving subsequent generations, the tree represented eternal life whilst its poisonous berries and strong wood, from which spears, arrows and bows were made, represented death.
Whilst the yew was relieved when its wood was no longer used for warfare, it was dismayed that this was only because more effective forms of weaponry had been developed. The tree was itself hit by a cannonball when the church, protecting Royalists inside, was attacked by Parliamentarians. Ironic that the ball should be discovered by a young man who in 1915 was sitting inside its now hollow trunk, creating a personal poem about peace. The old yew now looks down upon the young poet's name - on the war memorial.
Twenty five years later that same hollow trunk was to be a refuge for another young man's inspiration, this time compiling a speech about the atrocities of war. The conscientious objector's words were being written with added emotion for an enemy aircraft had dropped a bomb in the grounds of the local Manor House the night before.
The incident was all the talk that following Sunday. Parishioners were fearing if and indeed when the next bomb would drop. Yet even the wise old yew could not have predicted that seventy years on the incident would bring indirect pleasure. For only last Sunday two parishioners walked past the tree whilst commenting on the beautiful water lilies on display at the Manor House Open Gardens - in the pond created by the bomb crater.
Two other parishioners were discussing the rare orchids recently discovered in the disused quarry, a quarry now so densely covered in ferns it blends in with the vista. Yet the yew can recall how previous generations had viewed it as a grotesque cleave within the western hillside.
The yew has also presided over the parishioners' disapproval of the eastern hillside when the landowner planted a pinetum, starving the ground of sunlight and destroying, in their view, the natural spring display of primroses and bluebells. The yew observed the pines being felled last month - and then listened to those same parishioners, now much older, discussing their lovely pine furniture.
Going further back in time, the yew can recall how villagers had fumed about the construction of a viaduct which subsequently blocked their view down the valley; and how other local areas were witnessing chunks of earth being sliced out and banks of earth being created for the coming of the steam railway. Now the yew listened to two men, one hankering for the golden age of steam, the other looking forward to a trip on a restored steam line. The latter had an American accent, visiting the parish in order to trace his family history. Yet the yew can recollect when "foreigners" were people from nearby villages and towns, using the new railway to come and sell their goods, tempting the parishioners away from home grown and home-made produce. Village tradesmen protested that it would be "The downfall of our local trade!" The yew has heard that said a lot down the years.
It was not just the coming of the train that was disapproved of. The yew has noted how every new mode of transport has been received with a "Tut!" - even the bike. It can recollect one particular parishioner forecasting that it would be the end of human conversation with villagers now no longer stopping to talk, rather just pedalling on and replacing the polite "Hello" with a discourteous ring of the bell.
In fact the tree has eavesdropped on many a discussion about just that, the dying art of conversation. Only last Sunday it presided over a mother remarking how computers were encouraging her children to talk via a 'square screen' and stay indoors, yet the tree can remember when her mother was aghast at the onset of Children's TV, encouraging her daughter to develop 'square eyes'. Further back in time the yew can recall overhearing a mother's disapproval of the radio which had come into her home for her children were no longer going outside to listen to the music being played in the village square.
The yew could also recall the parishioner who refused to buy an electrical radio in protest at the monstrous pylons that had been put up which had, in his view, eternally devastated the rural view. However, only last Sunday the yew heard the same sentiments expressed about another source of energy, this time taking the form of gigantic windmills, that had been erected locally . . . yet the pylons had not been spoken about for decades.
Illustrated by: Debbie Rigler Cook
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 49
I was in the kitchen making the first pot of tea of the day, my thoughts mulling over the subject matter for this article. With the kettle nearing boiling point, I switched on the radio and heard the pips for . I listened to the headline news and immediately felt a shiver run down my spine. Not again, I thought. Surely not.
I explain, let me first complete the tale of my hideous journey home, or that's
how I saw it at the time after an evening out in
my journey to the
pelting raindrops lashing my windscreen, I eventually reached Wrafton, only to
meet signs reading "
I came to a halt. In the distance I was able to make out two white headlights of a large vehicle; lights that vanished momentarily, only to be replaced by two red spots which then faded into the distance. Having obviously turned round to head back up Winsford Hill, I realized that my little vehicle stood no chance of wading through the water. Time to do the same - except my U-turn would be on a descending hairpin bend! No other vehicles, thankfully, came around the corner.
So, once again, my little car and I drove off into the rural darkness. Feelings of fear, anger and frustration began to fill me. A fear of being alone and stranded in the dark. Frustration that I had not read nature's warning signs. Anger that I had moved away from the urban life I had always been used to - a lifestyle with people always around me and a night sky that was permanently lit. Now all I had were the occasional reflections of sheep's eyes and the sound of raindrops stamping upon my car roof to keep me company.
Illustrated by: Peter Rothwell
was therefore relieved to see once more the lights of
journey that normally takes three-quarters-of-an-hour had taken nearly
four. It had been the worst rainfall I
had ever had to encounter whilst driving.
'What an ordeal!', I kept saying when I told people about it the
following week. But on the seventh day
I stopped telling my story; for one week after my ordeal, to the exact hour
almost, the true power of
water began to show its force. Whilst I
slept soundly during the early hours of Boxing Day, a Tsunami struck
the shiver that ran down my spine. As I
was contemplating this article, making that first pot of tea of the day, I
listened instead to the shocking news that was breaking of the Tsunami in
I wish you a peaceful Easter. Let this be a time when we are grateful for all the beauty that is coming to life in our countryside. For that is what spring is all about.
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 48
In my last article I described the first part of a car journey, undertaken late at night, one week before Christmas in 2003. Earlier on in the day, low grey clouds had deflected the setting sun's intense orange rays, reddening the landscape. Red for danger, perhaps? Quite possibly - nature's rural creatures did seem to have an aura of urgency about them, as though sensing an impending change in the weather.
birds and livestock took note of the skies and sought refuge from the
heightening gusts of wind I, however, decided to ignore the signs and drive as
planned to a Christmas meal in
met signs at a deserted Chivenor roundabout preventing me from progressing
further along the A361, then meeting a string of cars reversing on the lane to
Ashford [Plan B], I had attempted the back road to Ilfracombe [Plan C], only to
discover the road flooded and impassable at Muddiford. My next plan was also my final one - left
until last as it was both the longest route home and, more significantly, along
a road I had never driven before, although we had been in
Within minutes I was questioning if I had made the right decision. The rain, so it seemed, merely strengthened with every broken white line of the road. At Burridge I made out a few smudged house lights; but before I could decide whether to stop, the properties were past me, disappearing into the murkiness of the night. Ahead of me was nothingness; just blackness all around and only the deluge of raindrops, highlighted by my car's headlights, to visually keep me company. Our uncomfortable partnership would occasionally be supplemented by a flock of dazzled eyes in an adjacent field. Their reflective stares seemed to send back a message that only madmen would choose to be out on such a monstrous night. They were probably right! But still I carried on, slowly and cautiously, peeking through my windscreen in an attempt to make out anything ahead.
Just for a moment the rain fractionally eased, enough for me to read a sign, saying 'Shirwell'. On reflection, I should have stopped and called for assistance at one of the village houses, but it was now just past ; and in any case, the few watery house lights that I could make out were upstairs. So, like Burridge before it, I left Shirwell behind and continued my journey.
Just out of Shirwell, the pounding rain returned. By now I felt my only option was to carry on - I had gone too far on this cross-country route to begin the return journey. Panic started to set in whilst the noise of the rain, pelting upon the car's roof, faded in my ears and was superseded by my own pounding heart beat. All my fears of the dark began to overtake me. How I wished I could instantly return to my urban roots where, after nightfall, I felt secure knowing people were all around me!
These thoughts were, however, soon put aside when the relatively straight and hedge-lined route I had so far taken, suddenly became a steeply descending road with hairpin bends. I could just make out a vertical bank of earth rising beside the road, up from which tree trunks vanished into the night sky. I tried to comfort myself, knowing that having completed the descent and then crossed the River Yeo, I should begin climbing Windford Hill and eventually reach Blackmore Gate - familiar territory, nearer to home.
But, just like at Braunton and Muddiford, my journey came to an abrupt halt. The River Yeo had broken its banks and made the road utterly impassable. Would I ever get home? One thing was certain. I had to move away from the rising pool of water in front of me. This time though, my U-turn would be at a hairpin bend on a steep gradient. If a vehicle failed to stop as it came around the corner . . .
[to be continued]
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 47
'Twas the week before Christmas - seven days before, to be exact - eight years ago. The sun was bidding its late-afternoon farewell, knowing that in a few days' time it would once more begin its daylight increase upon the northern hemisphere, having passed the winter solstice.
Just before dipping out of sight, its red ball shot up a handful of stark burning rays which tinged the low crimson clouds sweeping across the sky at a menacing pace. The clouds in turn deflected the rays, transforming the fields a dusky pink. The biting wind whipped through the naked trees and hedgerows, its force increasing with each gust. Birds fluttered from branch to branch in a desperate attempt to seek refuge. The landscape looked eerie. Nature seemed angry. Moreover, the skies appeared ominous.
I was due to drive to South Molton later that evening. My instincts told me not to go. I wish I had followed them. To quote from Simon and Sue's Weather or Not report:
Between about 11.00am on the 18th [December] and 8.00am on the 19th we recorded 46mm [1 3/4"] of rain, of which 43mm [1 5/8"] fell after 7.00pm. This was the night that Braunton flooded.
Leaving South Molton around 10.30pm to head back home, I had no idea of the journey that lay ahead of me. It was as though Ilfracombe would remain beyond my reach. Already falling heavily when I turned onto the A361, the pelting rain grew stronger with every mile. By the time I reached Barnstaple my vision was down to yards and was the reason I failed to see the deep pool of water that had collected across the Braunton-bound dual carriageway at Ashford.
Relieved to have driven through it without coming to a standstill, I continued at a safe snail's pace - but then came to an abrupt halt at Chivenor roundabout when I met a string of barriers and a sign, reading 'ROAD AHEAD CLOSED'. I could only guess at who had placed them there. The area was deserted.
In fact the last sign of life I had seen had been a line of car lights winding their way up the lane to Ashford from the other side of the dual carriageway. Plan B was, therefore, to head back to Ashford and follow their diversion.
By the time I reached the lane, however, cars were reversing back down it. This route had obviously also become impassable. The Muddiford road seemed the next best option. So, leaving the lights of Barnstaple behind me I headed off into the blackness of the night.
The rain fell even harder. Waves of loneliness and insecurity swept across me. To counteract these feelings, I turned up the radio so that the presenter could be clearly heard above the thud of the rain upon my car's roof. At Muddiford my worst fears were met. The river had broken its banks, completely flooding the road. Would I ever get home? I sat for a moment and tried to think of another route. The A39 perhaps? It would be a long way round, but maybe, just maybe, it would enable me to get back to Ilfracombe.
As it happened, my journey along the A39 would lead me to regret, for a short while at least, ever having moved away from the city lights to the countryside. Until, that was, exactly one week later when a natural flood disaster on the other side of the planet would put into context the events of that night. But I will leave that until next time.
For now, I will wish you a peaceful Christmas and a healthy New Year.
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 46
Records reveal that the oak tree now buds at least twenty days earlier than it did in the 18th century. The same cannot be said for the ash, and with experts predicting that climate change will encourage the oak to bud even earlier, we are unlikely to see the days when the ash competed to be first out of the two in leaf. So what of the proverb? Will it always be a case of 'oak before ash, there will be a small splash' rather than 'ash before oak, there will be a big soak'?
This summer has seen a bit of both. Early on there were days with the occasional splash of rain - by August the holidaymakers were regularly getting soaked through! Maybe the summer months couldn't decide which proverb to stick with. For another saying goes, 'Oak before ash, will be wet and splash, Ash before oak, will be fire and smoke'.
As summer gives way to autumn, forcing daytime temperatures and light levels to decrease, so the leaves of the oak and ash, along with all other deciduous trees, will no longer receive the required sunlight to produce the pigments chlorophyll and carotene. Gradually the green chlorophyll will decay to reveal the orange carotene beneath. But where in spring it was oak before ash, in autumn it will be ash before oak. For the ash tree's carotene decays at such a rate that its leaves are dropping well before they have had a chance to provide an autumnal display.
The oak meanwhile is a complete contrast. Like the beech, it will hold on to its leaves throughout autumn. So now is the time to seek out your nearest oak or beech wood and enjoy the dazzling display of yellows, oranges and shades of gold on offer.
Illustrated by: Paul Swailes
Whilst enjoying this autumnal splendour, spare a thought for the old oak tree which is being allowed a respectable death in the nearby field. If the saying is to be believed, it will have lived at least two thirds of its allotted life - an oak tree allegedly spends three hundred years growing, three hundred years resting and three hundred years declining. If allowed to complete this last stage, the tree's trunk will be hollowed out by the fungi already inside it. This in turn causes the upper branches to die and snap off, in effect, shrink like humans do. The oak, however, takes much longer to degenerate than a human body. Eaten from the inside out, it will spend many years tilting near collapse whilst its 'outer wall' protects it from falling. It is only once this wall becomes too narrow to support its hollow, cylindrical trunk, that the tree collapses, and with no innards to protect it, shatters into a thousand pieces as it hits the surface.
During their declining years, trees will provide the ideal home for birds such as owls, woodpeckers, nuthatches and tree creepers. Bats also roost inside them and invertebrates will take up home within, many of which are dependent on decaying trees. Fungi begin to thrive, eating the outside as well as the inside, whilst lichens begin to grow. Even once the old oak collapses, its decaying process continues. Fungi carry on breaking down the nutrients until the wood is completely rotted. This in effect provides space for new trees and prevents soil erosion. Invertebrates also move in, helping to break the wood down as they feed upon it. Others choose to make it their permanent residence with some, such as the stage beetle, spending its whole existence living in and feeding on the decaying wood. Yet it is not just the wood that offers excellent nutrition. The insects themselves provide good sustenance, both for each other [many insects will eat others] and for birds, with the great spotted woodpecker a particular connoisseur of the oak bark beetle.
Maybe this will be the autumn that provides winds strong enough to level the old oak, or perhaps its trunk is now so hollow it will collapse naturally. Who knows? One thing is certain. This grand ancient tree would not have been able to provide in its prime a splash of gold to match the golden soaking of the nearby oak wood if it wasn't for the cooling temperatures and shortening daylight hours of autumn.
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 45
Early spring had seen its wooded paths lined with the bright sunshine flowers of lesser celandine. As the strips of yellow faded, so its woodland floor became carpeted with bluebells. The advent of summer had then seen the pinks of herb Robert, hedge woundwort, red campion and foxgloves take hold.
All are wild flowers seen year in and year out upon the Cairn. The same could not be said, however, for the twayblade. With no one alive today having ever witnessed it anywhere upon the area's 28 acres, the orchid had passed into folklore history. Only one person, in fact, could lay claim to spotting it -Joan Robertson, the Cairn's Devon Wildlife Trust Warden between 1974 and 1995.
The orchid's name is derived from its characteristic two broad leaves [tway blades] which grow at ground level. The small flowers, which grow to between 30cm and 60cm high, are usually green. Had Joan mistaken the orchid for a species of grass? Unlikely, hers was a reliable source of information, especially if to do with the Cairn. So it came as no surprise when the orchid was rediscovered by Cairn Conservation Carer volunteers whilst undertaking a wildflower survey in early summer. After an absence of at least fifteen years, the Cairn and the orchid had once again been reunited.
Reunions of a different sort will of course be part of the events taking place on Saturday 7th August when the Berrynarbor Newsletter celebrates its 21st birthday. Like any celebration, it will bring together both strangers and acquaintances, in particular reuniting people with connections past and present with the village or the Newsletter. I look forward to seeing you there and may I take this opportunity to congratulate the Newsletter on its coming of age!
The Newsletter's birthday party is to take place in the Manor Hall, a venue which has been and still is frequently used for village occasions. One such event was the Berrynarbor Craft Fayre. Last year Judie kindly invited me to have a stall where I could promote my book, "A Doorstep Discovery - Twelve Months on the Cairn", which I had recently written. At the event I was pleased to meet up with Farmer Fred, a fellow rural-tale- teller who wrote for Combe Martin's Shammickite magazine. We spent the day discussing countryside stories, including those I had written in my book.
Farmer Fred asked if I had contacted Aubrey Dyer who, having lived in Slade for many years, would no doubt have many a tale to tell about the Cairn. I told him I had indeed been in touch and that many of Aubrey's stories had been included in the book. Farmer Fred went on to say how he hadn't seen Aubrey for over 60 years, yet within hours of the remark the two were reunited once more when by chance Aubrey walked into the same fish and chip restaurant where Farmer Fred was eating!
I was saddened to hear of Farmer Fred's recent passing. He brought great pleasure to many people through the amusing tales he told of his time as a farmer and I should like to dedicate this article to him. "Fred" was not, of course, his real name; and, in the end, many people no doubt knew who he actually was. But then, for Joe, secretly letting on to people that he was the "Farmer Fred" of the Shammickite magazine gave him as much pleasure as writing the articles themselves!
RURAL REFLECTIONS No. 44
There was just one topic on the lips of people in the park after the 6th of May. Join in any conversation and one found the same two questions being asked: "What will happen?" and "Who can we blame?"
Yet the subject matter had nothing to do with politics, although the issue under discussion had striking similarities with the election result.
ensuing debates, as they always are in
The ducks' temporary majority was the result of twenty or so newly hatched mallard ducklings [this number varied depending on who provided your statistics - another affinity with party politics!]. But with each passing night their numbers dwindled. At the last count, only three remained. The ducks' coalition had crumbled.
One viewpoint not being put forward amongst the discussions was whether the reduction was just part of the natural process. Was this because it had occurred in a public rather than a natural surrounding? After all, would those same people be perturbed if they came across a dead chick in a woodland? Possibly not; yet ironically their lack of concern for some bird species at least, would be fully justified.
Take the blue tit. Every year, one half of each breeding pair dies. This means that only one youngster from their yearly brood needs to survive in order to keep the population steady. Yet up to ten fledglings will leave the nest. Nature, however, takes its course ensuring that in most cases nine out of the ten do not make it through to the following spring. Amazingly, the survival of more than one chick would lead to our countryside being inundated with blue tits.
Whilst nature takes care to guarantee that numbers do not increase, many of us do our bit to make sure that the blue tit population and that of other bird species do not dwindle by providing opportunities for nest building in our own gardens. This time last year, however, I found myself doing more than just helping a pair of blue tits raise a brood by providing a nest box.
Having delivered moss, grass and leaves to the box, the female then perched herself comfortably on her nest. The male was then seen fastidiously delivering food to her whilst she laid her eggs. Her re-emergence to deliver food to the box herself [along with the sound of high pitched calls] was a sure sign that her chicks had hatched. All too soon the chicks had matured enough to peep out of the hole in order to take a glimpse of the world beyond their box.
Then, very early one morning, they fledged - except one, the runt of the brood, so to speak. Pushing its tiny little head out of the box, it called and it called. The minutes turned into hours. Yet the mother was nowhere to be seen. With starvation the only forecast, the youngster accepted there was only one option, to take to the air.
Its attempt proved feeble. Now lying on the lawn and too weak to try a second takeoff, the pitiful creature, whose tattered and incomplete feathers made its species almost unidentifiable, seemed destined to become nourishment for any lurking predator. Time, it seemed, for mankind to intervene.
Gently taking hold of the youngster, I placed it on the rim of the nest box hole only for it to immediately attempt another unsuccessful launch. So I tried again, and then again. It seemed that instinct had kicked in, telling the youngster's minute brain that having left the nest it was not supposed to return. I was therefore left with only one option. Gently picking it up once more, the fragile fledgling allowed me to restit upon a branch in our hedge, leaving it calling once more for food, I walked back inside and allowed nature to take its course.
A few days later I recognised that feeble looking fledgling by its unkempt plumage which had still not fully formed. Its beak was once more wide open and calling, until, that was, its mother arrived. Then all fell silent whilst the youngster took
in a scrumptious morsel of food. Looking at it perched contentedly upon a branch of our greengage tree, it was good to see how it had already grown in size.
At least I had given this 'ugly duckling' an equal chance to be the one member of the brood to survive into the following year. I wonder if he is still around?
RURAL REFLECTIONS NO. 43
A clump of snowdrops cling to a bank where the urban road becomes a country lane. The emergence of these nodding white flowers is supposed to herald the end of winter. Yet this morning they appear to be hunching their stems as much as possible in order to protect themselves from the biting north-easterly wind. Every cold blast forces their spear-shaped leaves to tremble, whilst up above the wind whips through the sycamores arching the lane. As their branches shake in response, it is hard to imagine them awash with fresh leaves rustling in a warm spring breeze. Where the archway ceases, the rhubarb-like leaves of winter heliotrope dominate the western bank.
Although some of the pale lilac flowers have now withered, as one would expect at the beginning of March, many are still standing resplendent; and was that a scent of vanilla I caught in a cold gust of wind, just then? The flowers' presence is a testament to winter's grip despite having passed the first of March, "the first day of spring".
Moreover, the fields which rise on the eastern side of this tight valley are blanketed by frost; a reflection of how, yet again, temperatures dipped well below freezing last night. The sun has only just appeared above the woodland which adorns the ridge of this hillside; it will be a good hour yet before the sun's early-spring rays can set to task upon the frost.
The hedgerow's shadow having receded a little, I followed the narrow path of sunlight on the far side of the lane. The unabated wind, however, had a cold, penetrating feel to it which prevented the sun from warming my icy cheeks. Today is no morning stroll, more an urgency to keep walking at a swift pace in order to stay warm - not that I run the risk of missing any sights within the passing hedgerows and banks. None of last year's wildflowers have survived, a change to previous years when mild winters encouraged species such as red campion and herb Robert, to name just a couple, to remain in flower throughout winter.
The only variation to the plethora of greens, browns and greys on view are the pale blue and primrose-yellow feathers of a blue tit who is hunting for any tiny morsels of food life available upon the nearby branches. Yet even he is persuaded to fly off and seek refuge within the woods when his feathers are literally ruffled by yet another cold blast of air.
The hedgerow gives way to the old stone bridge, allowing the
An hour later, on my way back home, the sun had risen sufficiently to shine upon the whole lane. Stopping at the farmer's gate, I spotted the gorse flowers on the far hilltops. No longer twinkling like the lights of Christmas, their bright yellow colour was fading fast. I knew this to be a sign that the same hilltops would soon be dusted in the white blossom of Blackthorn. Leaning against the gate, the hedgerows at either end acted as a buffer from the wind's race with itself down the lane. I turned to face the sun, closed my eyes and allowed its mid-morning rays to warm my cheeks. Lovely! I then heard a sound which brought a smile to my face: the bill of a spotted woodpecker vibrating and drumming fast upon a branch somewhere in the distance - a sure sign of early spring. On opening my eyes, I observed a lone flower taking advantage of a sheltered spot within the hedge bank. Away from the cold wind, the sun's rays had encouraged its yellow, shiny petals to open up - the first lesser celandine of spring. On a tree above the bank, a male chaffinch began calling; not just a 'pink' or a 'weef', but his distinctive longer song that ends with a flourish. Was he rehearsing his courtship song for the coming of spring? His plumage, in particular the pink on his breast and the slate-blue on his head and behind his eyes, was no longer as dull as it had been throughout winter.
Perhaps spring really is just around the corner.
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 41
"It's nice to see the green of the countryside again," a lady was heard to remark when the ice and snow finally melted. And who could disagree with her? The recent snowfall was incomparable to last February when, having cloaked the valleys and hilltops, it then melted and vanished within days.
This time, however, the night time temperatures plummeted, causing snowflakes to link with their next-door-neighbours, toughening in so doing and turning transparent. Surfaces were soon suffocated beneath thick layers of ice, too thick for the sun's winter rays to penetrate. Indeed, if the musical chords of Bolero had been rolled out across the conurbations, Torville and Dean could have taken their choice upon which pavement to skate. What's more, they could have danced their routine without fear of interruption, concrete making a rare appearance; and just like it always does when it lingers in urban locations, the snow soon turned grey and looked dirty.
The countryside meanwhile remained bleached. Green blades of grass were concealed beneath the white. Hedge banks acted as buffers for drifts of snow. Tree branches became ledges upon which flakes could come to rest. Villages and woods mirrored the scene on the Christmas card that still stood on the mantelpiece; and whilst the card would be on view for only a few more days, the picture outside was intent on remaining unchanged for some time to come.
When news broke that the inclement weather was to hang around for a while, some people reacted in the way they seem programmed to do when such events occur, panic. Or more specifically, panic-buy!
Out in the countryside meanwhile, wildlife had its own problems to focus on, with the day-to-day availability of food, or more specifically access to it, becoming difficult. The media however, fully aware of this, encouraged people to help bird life in particular by making food available in our gardens.
Yet birds which are commonly found within our fields,
hedgerows and woodlands were not just to be seen upon a bird feeder or bird
table. Whilst taking a walk in
Later that day, on my way out of town along a busy road, I saw a bird that I normally associate with the open fields near Ashford. From a distance they appear as a mass of black and white spots against the green pasture. Yet here was one on a grass verge, poking about the snow in the hope of finding something edible underneath. As I slowly passed by, I enjoyed the opportunity of being able to appreciate at close range the lapwing's fine long crest and its glossy iridescent plumage.
Illustrations by: Paul Swailes
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 40
Mid-November, time for the annual climb into the loft to look for the box marked "XMAS CARDS". Not that I'll be writing them just yet. I do admit, however, to enjoying the task of writing Christmas cards; or more to the point, choosing which card to send to which person. So, with the kitchen table cleared after a very late lunch, its surface was soon concealed beneath a multitude of packs.
I surveyed all the cards on the table and instantly realised they had one universal feature. It was on the robin's branch; it was on the post box into which a small boy was on tiptoes posting his card; it lay across the field in which the stag stood; it was on the rooftops over which Santa and Rudolph were flying; it was even on the tall hats of the men driving the coach and horses in the Victorian urban scene. It was, of course, snow.
As my eyes took in the white scenes strewn across the table, my mind drifted back to last February when another table surface, this time in the garden, was hidden beneath real snow. I chuckled to myself as I recalled how the weather gods had decided to play a trick on us all. Rather than sprinkling little parcels of snow everywhere and dusting the countryside in white, the gods decided to deliver it by parcel force instead!
Some people were frustrated at the havoc it caused. Ilfracombe, for example, was temporarily cut off from the outside world. But the scene it created was purely magical. Unable to get to work, or indeed go anywhere, everyone just put on their big coats and boots and took advantage of an opportunity to observe our countryside shrouded beneath a white blanket. Residents from one village spoke to residents from another as they passed along a country footpath. Meanwhile complete strangers began having snowball fights in parks and whilst all other plants had their spring preparation halted, the snowdrops were given the chance to stand tall and boast their splendour and resilience in the face of harsh conditions.
Yet those early spring flowers seemed to benefit from being stopped in their tracks. As days passed by and daylight hours increased, urban and rural areas were dazzled by yellow. The green blades of open grassland disappeared beneath dandelions, daffodils dominated the parklands and hedgerows were immersed in primroses; and when the yellow subsided we were, once again, blessed with a magnificent carpet of bluebells in our woodlands; a carpet of blue which, for the third year running, peaked early as a result of warm temperatures.
The snow of late winter and the warm sunshine of spring rose hopes of a good summer. Optimists argued that the seasons were possibly returning to their natural pattern. A harsh spell in winter usually bodes well for a hot, dry summer, they were saying. Others were more sceptical; the previous two years had also seen exceptionally warm springs - then look what happened! By midsummer it seemed as though the pessimists were right; and by the end of August it was obvious that the weather gods had indeed played us another trick. Whilst the spring countryside had been healthy and vigorous, it didn't take a medical or environmental expert to diagnose how our countryside was feeling as summer reached its final stage: bedraggled and washed out.
Yet in early September [just as the children went back to school], the clouds began to break. The sun started to appear more and more on the daily register and the temperatures rose. Trees which had already allowed one or two leaves to decay and even fall decided it wasn't time to allow the other leaves to go the same way. By October we were having a mini renaissance, with temperatures well above the seasonal average. Midges were seen swarming along country lanes, small tortoiseshell butterflies were observed regularly following the contours of garden bushes and woodlands were abuzz with the droning sound of hover-flies.
Then came the strong winds - but the autumn leaves failed to fall. Once more the weather gods dealt a trick card, confusing the woodlands with warm, southerly winds. With the trees now thinking that summer had returned, they held steadfastly on to their golden leaves whilst their branches were violently tossed about. The sight was uncanny. The dawn of November heralded another bizarre observation closer to home, when a sparrow cleared out a nest box in the garden and began replacing it with new feathers and straw. Did the little creature also believe summer was still here?
My meandering thoughts were suddenly jolted by the sound of rain thudding against the window pane. Only then did I realise how dark the afternoon had become, causing the kitchen to lose much of its natural light. Unless it's just a squalid shower, I thought, I'll be drawing the curtains and switching on the lights prematurely today. Indeed, the next few weeks would no doubt see the curtains being pulled a little earlier with each passing December day.
I quickly decided upon the types of cards I needed to buy and packed away those I already had, having enjoyed my little reflection of this year's weather and its effects on the surrounding countryside. In a week or so I would begin the task of writing my cards, adding snippets of news from what had gone on over the past year. For that is what December is all about; a time for reflection and for making contact with people who, if it were not for Christmas, we might otherwise allow to permanently drift from our thoughts.
Christmas Day means many things to many people. For me, it represents a turning point; for we are past the shortest day. It is a fact that never fails to bring a smile to my face on Christmas morning, as I remind myself that some day soon I will no longer be turning the lights on earlier. The curtains will instead be drawn a little later. Come New Year, the time for reflection is over. It is time to look forward.
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 39
The sound of a chainsaw echoed through the valley. "I hate to hear trees being cut down," a fellow dog walker remarked as we strolled around the park. She had a point. A tree in its twilight years not only provides a home for woodpeckers and bats; there are certain invertebrate species that depend on decaying trees. Lichen also thrive on ageing trees, as do fungi, the latter continuing to eat away at a tree once it has collapsed and not stopping until the wood has completely rotted. In effect, fungi break down a tree's nutrients so that they can return to the soil and encourage new ones to grow in the space provided by the old tree.
Trees, however, which tilt near collapse on ground owned by statutory authorities find their life being dictated by an issue commonplace in today's culture: Health and Safety. Whilst this can be viewed as man interfering with the natural decaying process, society's constantly evolving "green" attitude is at least encouraging all of us to intervene and work with nature in order to give it a helping hand.
Examples of this are all around me. The nest boxes erected in our garden are currently busy with blue tit and sparrow activity. In the park, ducks are merrily swimming in a pond which, thanks to mechanical diggers, is once more completely full of water and devoid of any silt; silt which was left alone for a few days to allow its wildlife to crawl back into the pond. Meanwhile on the Cairn's grassland, orchids, yarrow and campion are replacing the violets and primroses of spring, all of which have flourished through the local conservation group's clearance of bracken and gorse. The Cairn has also recently received mechanical intervention when a chainsaw took out a significant sycamore residing beside an open area of woodland - to the benefit of bluebells which thrived from the increase in daylight.
The work of the Cairn Conservation Carers was just one subject I covered whilst writing my book, "A Doorstep Discovery - Twelve Months on the Cairn in Ilfracombe". Composing the book was a tale of two halves in itself. Having researched the Cairn's history, I was able to decide on what to include and what to leave out and so had control on what I wrote. This was in complete contrast when writing about my observations on the Cairn, for I was completely in nature's hands and could only write about what I saw. Much as I wanted to go into depths about badgers, I did not see one; as it was, the fox only just got in the book with one making an appearance on my final walk. Neither could I describe the Cairn immersed in snow - although recording the area carpeted by frost when I walked to Cairn Top to see the sunrise on the winter solstice was magical and an utter pleasure to write about.
Bringing together in one book the Cairn's history and my twelve-month's observations on the area's flora and fauna, along with ensuring the text flowed smoothly from one chapter to the next, was a challenge.
But in essence that is what has made the book all the more rewarding to see in print, not to mention the fulfilment of a lifetime's dream to have a book published.
But best of all was the enjoyment at being completely at the disposal of nature in dictating what I could write about.
Next month I shall be writing about another example of man giving nature a helping hand - literally - and how certain paths that we take in our lives prove that, like the writing of my book, we are in the hands of forces much more powerful than us.
Stephen's book, A Doorstep Discovery - Twelve Months
on the Cairn in Ilfracombe, is on sale at £12.99 at Ilfracombe Book Shop,
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 39
The daffodils beside the boating lake sway in a gentle, spring breeze, the bright sunshine enhancing their yellow trumpeted faces. In turn, they light up the faces of passers by, yet their cheerful presence fails to uplift me. Instead, my mood is more akin to the depressing layer of drab-coloured silt that suffocates the lake's bed; a surface recently exposed when the water was emptied.
mirrors the emptiness I feel inside; for our dear, black
Perhaps, when the pain of his loss eases, the void will be filled by the memories of happiness and laughter, not to mention the loyalty and unconditional love, that our "Mr. B" gave us; and at least I have the countryside that surrounds me to evoke these special memories.
Take the local green, something that is synonymous with a rural village. It will remind me of Mr B's "first outing". Finally allowed out after all of his inoculations, he ran wild on our nearby green. Nose to the ground, he ran and he ran, his tail excitedly wagging with every new scent of discovery. Everything then suddenly came to a halt for a quick stoop and a wee-wee, then he was off again! After a few minutes, flop. Lying on his stomach, he panted heavily whilst his tail still wagged as his eyes took in the new world surrounding him.
There was a corner shop on one side of the green; how Bourton loved to carry the wallet on his way home. Years later, when he began to make a habit of sniffing every blade of grass in order to drag out the last few yards of a walk, we realised that by popping his lead into his mouth he would then instinctively trot home. Somehow though, I think he knew the trick we were trying to play on him.
rabbits in a field will always cause me to smile. Bourton loved to
chase them. As a young dog, taken for a
walk at dusk, he would spy in the distance a host of rabbits. Having been told to 'sit', he would then
wait for his command. On hearing
"Go on, then!" he would be like a bullet out of a shotgun. He never reached them in time, but he loved
the chase. Only once did he catch a
rabbit, in the field above
sight or sound of a pheasant will also remind me of an occasion when, running
through a meadow of long grass, he unexpectedly flushed one out. I don't know who was more shocked, me or the
pheasant - or who made
the loudest shriek! A field of long
grass will also remind me of our first motorcaravan
holiday with him. I can picture him
now, aged about three months, running about the field with his little body and
gangly legs peering out above the long grass with every stride he took in order
to see where he was going. The site was
a mile from
Bourton, however, was never happier than in a wood. His gundog instinct made him investigate any little track or trail that led off a winding path. Walks in the woods are going to seem strange for a little while.
That first climb to Cairn Top will
also be difficult. He loved to either
mooch about the summit, sniffing the trails of other recent canine visitors or
just sit with his head slightly raised whilst his nostrils flared and picked up
any scent on the wind. Other walks will
also be hard. Mr B loved the walk
Most of all, the sight and sound of country streams will invoke the strongest memories. Bourton would spend all day if he could gathering up stones from a stream bed, completely submerging his face if need be, in his determination to bring us his chosen item; and on a summer's day, it was Bourton who had the sense to lie down in the stream to cool off whilst watching his younger brother, Gifford, getting all hot and bothered.
When the daffodils come into flower next spring, I am sure they will once more bring me happiness.
Even now, they are to some degree
giving me comfort, reminding me of the last walk
Illustrated by: Josh Age 9
We had driven to Morewenstowe, intent on walking to Hawker's Hut. It was obvious that he would not make it. Instead, we took him for a little walk around the nearby churchyard. Situated on a sloping hillside, we took a slow walk down its zigzag path, reading inscriptions whilst waiting for him to catch us up. I can still see him now as we climbed back up, his two back legs kicking together as he ascended through the daffodils, nose to the ground.
So, farewell Bourton, we'll miss you terribly, but thank you for all the happiness you gave us during your fourteen-and-a-half years. Run freely through those woods and fields up above.
may remember that Steve has been writing a book about the Cairn in
Ilfracombe. 'A Doorstep Discovery - Twelve Months on the Cairn in Ilfracombe' is to be launched at
So many readers will empathise with Steve on the loss of a much-loved pet, we wish him well. We also wish him much success with his book.
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 38
write this article whilst on holiday.
Yet in many ways I could easily be in
Alternatively, the stream will flow into a river which will disperse at a gaping estuary where curlews continue their never-ending search for food under the sands and where the call of an oyster catcher echoes across the sand dunes. For all intents and purposes, it could be the Taw or Torridge estuary.
Elsewhere, deeply sloping valleys are replaced by gently rolling hills and miles upon miles of hedgerows. The scene makes for an eerily familiar patchwork quilt - even the ploughed earth is red.
However, distant sights give the game away. To the north lie hills which rise to become mountains. Looking west, tall thin chimneys choke out smoke and naked flames.
the east is another source of industry; this time wind turbines which shatter
the rural picture. It is a sight which,
for a little longer, at least, confirms that I am not in
Within closer proximity are other reminders that I am away from home. Gone are the cosy villages with thatched roofs whose cottages would, if they could, tell yarns of self-sufficient villagers who lived off the land. Hard times, but happy times. Today, the happy smiles and friendly 'hello' can still be found.
This is in contrast to the villages dotted in the countryside around me. The cottages lack warmth and vitality. If I was an artist, I'd repaint the scene without browns and greys so that the drab, pebble-dashed buildings would individually stand out. Instead, these cottages reflect a different industrial era, one of coal rather than agriculture, and one devoid of any happy times, or so it seems.
Standing upon a headland, I look across the waters to a distant stretch of land - my home. Its presence on the scene brought my father to mind.
how I would get upset every December when he would turn down my invitation to
spend Christmas at my place. Now, older
myself, I have become just like him!
Just as that distant land on the horizon is reminding me now,
there is indeed nowhere quite like North
Wishing you all a peaceful Christmas and happy new year.
Illustrations by: Paul Swailes
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 37
Early October. Yellows and golds encroach upon the Cairn. Yet green still dominates; it shows how autumn's spectacle is shifting. Yellow does, however, have the monopoly amongst the bracken, particularly beside Station Path. Here, their leaves have decayed to reveal a bench hidden since May. On the other side of the path, a wren sings its heart out within the layered hedge. One year on from being laid, infant branches are shooting forth, enabling the hedge to slowly take shape once more.
I had left home intent on searching for one of the Cairn's long lost paths. But, as I stood by the hedge, I became acutely aware of how crisp the surrounding scene looked; hardly surprising, a fresh autumnal breeze taking with it the haze that had been a feature of the hot summer (remember them?). The Welsh coastline stood out in particular, a view that required better appreciation. Cairn Top would, therefore, be my first call; reached by taking the most direct route, past The Spindles and up the steep Shelter Steps.
No sooner had I set foot on to Spindles Path when rasping shrieks resonated through the air. They came from the southern end of Pall Meadow, blocked from view by the surrounding blackthorn. After a few minutes, the shrieking was replaced by the sound of slow, flapping wings. Soon a jay appeared from over the ridge of the meadow, struggling to gain height. Seemingly unaware of my presence, it passed directly overhead before landing in a tree within the grounds of the Round House. I wondered for a moment if its slow flight was the result of an injury. The shrieks were certainly loud enough to justify an aggressive squabble with another jay. Laboured flight is, however, a characteristic of the species but I had not noticed any injury as it flew past.
Instead, I had been given an opportunity to admire at close hand the pale pink feathers of its breast and the contrast of its white rump and black tail. These colours, along with the striking blue wing coverts and jet black flight feathers, blend to make the jay one of our most attractive woodland birds. It can also be one of our most elusive, yet this was not to be the last time today that I should experience jays at close hand.
Within the blackthorn along Spindles Path, a female blackbird was overturning leaves in search of food. Beneath each leaf she found plenty of sloe berries but these too were tossed to one side. And who could blame her? Now withered and imitating miniature wrinkled prunes, they looked far from appetizing. In any case, blackberries and hawberries are her particular fancy at this time of year. Their seeds will not break down once inside her stomach. Instead they will pass through her digestive system undamaged and then be deposited in individual "bags of manure". It is a process special to the blackbird, enabling the seeds to germinate much quicker. Furthermore, the blackbird's diverse fruit diet allows a host of plants including rowan, bramble, haw, ivy, and holly to benefit.
The action of a bird relentlessly turning over twigs, leaves and stones in search of food is always a joy to watch. Like all her fellow species, the female blackbird knows that now is the time to build up energy in preparation for possible leaner times ahead. Of course, she does not need anyone to tell her. All she needs to do is look at her surrounding scene; the hedge bank with its grasses now pale and its montbretia leaves and three-cornered-leek leaves now limp. Even the cluster of greater plantain is an insipid brown colour, not a hint of green in any of its flowers which once made up their distinguished stalks. At least there is greenery hanging over the hedge bank where it passes The Spindles. It is provided by ivy, a site that will give comfort in the coming months to our female blackbird; if food does become scarce, the ivy will at least provide her with berries late into winter.
A lone red campion flower brushed up against the bench just here, as though needing it for comfort. It must wonder what has happened to its many hundred counterparts which once cloaked the bench. Nowadays it looks down upon a Spindles full of seed heads; a reminder that nature is looking after its own and ensuring that flowers will grow here again next year.
Entering the woodland, it was clear that the sycamores were now losing their leaves at an increasing rate. With the sighting of birds becoming easier by the day, it was tempting to look upwards. On the Cairn, however, October heralds a time to look down, especially on damp mornings when the paths' exposed rocks become either slippery or hidden beneath wet leaves.
The climb through the woodland was in
complete contrast to the brightness of the summit, enhanced even more due to
recent gorse clearance by the Cairn Conservation Carers work parties. The area would have been brighter still if
it were not for the cloud hanging wearily over the sky. Inland looked perilously dark. Yet on reaching the hills south of
Ilfracombe, the cloud base lightened and, on reaching the town, tried its
hardest to break up. Once over the
Closer to hand was an autumnal display at different stages. With the beech trees still green, the oaks were just turning yellow. The ash trees on the other hand were almost gold; and whilst the maples and sycamores were fast losing their leaves, the nearby cherry tree was already naked. The northern perimeter from which the tree rose was a hive of activity - not bees, but flies - with the matter of the "birds and the bees" their apparent concern. Rarely resting on the rock to be easily identified, a game of "kiss-and-chase" was clearly in evidence. When the male finally caught up with his female counterpart, the pair momentarily flew in tandem before uncoupling, the required deed for the day having been accomplished. The bulging red eyes of the fly species suggested they could have been flesh flies. As their name suggests, they are normally attracted to carrion and carcasses.
No doubt these "hot-blooded" flies appreciated the wind blowing across Cairn Top to lower their body temperatures following their five seconds of intimacy. Conditions, however, were far from cold, providing an ideal opportunity to rest awhile upon the summit before attempting to discover the long-lost path.
Not knowing the path's location, I felt an
urge to descend Cairn Top via the North Kerne Path, one that is ideal for
solitude on foot. With its surrounding
beeches still resisting autumn, the sun came out and shone through their
lime-coloured leaves to make them appear transparent. Dappled shade covered the ground, whilst
higher up the leaves rustled in the autumn's breeze, a contrast to the
stillness and the warmth of the air around me.
Yet it was not just a bodily warmth; there is an atmosphere in the beech
woodland here which penetrates the body to provide an inner glow as well. For all was indeed tranquil. But for the rustling leaves above, there was
no birdsong or any sound of movement.
Loud squawking then abruptly disturbed the silence. In the trees above me, three jays were viciously fighting. As they did battle, one was forced down on to a lower branch, the other two birds thrashing their wings and smacking their beaks savagely. Eventually the singled out jay was almost forced to the ground but, before giving up his battle and flying off, gave out one last aggressive squawk, loud enough to disturb a nocturnal creature from its slumber.
Out from the greenery, the bold white wings of a barn owl flapped profusely. At first it hovered just above the foliage before finding its bearings and flying off across the path just a few yards in front of me - whilst omitting an inexplicable glowing warmth. Within moments it had lost height and disappeared into the bramble. Keen to get a closer look, I gently stepped across the rough terrain and peered in. The owl was nowhere to be seen. Neither was the pair of jays. Silence had returned to the woodland and inside me was a warm bodily glow, penetrating from the inside out.
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 36
Early April. The sound of puffing is heard along the western ridge of the Cairn. A steam train pulling out of Ilfracombe station, perhaps? Unlikely; the track was pulled up over thirty years ago! Instead, a jogger is panting heavily as she strides out along the old railway line. Only occasionally does she look up, revealing a furrowed brow and piercing eyes looking straight ahead. They fail to acknowledge their surroundings.
With her mind transfixed on her every next step, she fails to hear the rasping shrieks resonating through the air. They come from the southern end of Pall Meadow. After a few minutes, the noise is replaced by the sound of slow flapping wings. Soon a jay appears from over the ridge of the meadow, struggling to gain height, passing directly over her head before landing in a tree within the grounds of the Round House. Perhaps its slow flight was the result of an injury, the shrieks were certainly loud enough to justify an aggressive squabble with another jay.
The jogger passes the buddleia which borders the old railway line. New green shoots are fast appearing. In the undergrowth beneath, a wren bobs about in search of food. Opposite the wren, upon a prominent ash tree, stands a chiffchaff. His repetitive two-note song is a welcome sound upon the Cairn, his arrival acting as a reminder that spring is on its way. The jogger is oblivious.
Even when she lowers her head again, she overlooks the lesser celandine which are increasing by the day. Their splash of yellow is a welcome sight. Just for one second, the jogger's foot, pounding heavily, sidles up against an unblemished celandine flower. Above its heart-shaped, glossy leaves, the flower's eight petals display a faultless, symmetrical circumference. The flower nods its head in the cool spring breeze as though asking to be appreciated. Primroses also line the path. One stands out in particular, its rosette made up of twelve bright yellow flowers. Although tucked away beneath the buddleia, the morning sun pokes through the branches and highlights the plant. "You are common, we are rare, so just take the time to stop and stare" it calls to the jogger.
She trundles on, allowing the chiffchaff's call to become just an echo. Yet before it peters out, the two-tone songs of the great tit and the coal tit start to replace it. For a while, the jogger runs to the melody of three tunes, each containing just two notes but distinguishable by their own
speed. It is as though they have been wound up like an old record player, one bird whistling at seventy-eight revolutions per minute, one at forty-five and the other at thirty-three. Their tunes are soon replaced by another echo, for our jogger has left behind the wonderful sights and sounds of early spring. No doubt unaware of the decrease in light around her, the arched walls within the Slade Tunnel reverberate to the din of thumping footsteps and heavy breath.
The jogger, of course, is not alone in missing the rural delights which are literally springing up around her. The worker has targets to beat. The parent has children to meet. The dog walker has jobs to complete. So perhaps it is about making time available and, at this time of year, one does not have to wait long before nature springs into action. For example, whilst sat in my summerhouse, collecting my thoughts in preparation for this article, a female blackbird made regular visits as she collected material for her nest. Admiring her patience, as she rummaged beneath the hydrangeas and picked up each tiny twig before rolling it within her beak in order to test its suitability, was a constant distraction, but a most pleasurable one.
So, if you can, try and make the time to stop and stare. This really is a wonderful period in the countryside's calendar.
UPSIDE DOWN GINGER APPLE PUDDING
As February is probably one of the coldest months of the year, comfort food is called for. This dark, sticky gingerbread can be served hot from the oven as a pudding or cooled and eaten as a cake.
3oz [75g] Demerara Sugar
1 tablespoon of Lemon Juice
2 Bramley Apples [12oz or 350g after peeling & coring]
For the Gingerbread:
1lb [450g] Plain Flour 6oz [175g] Black Treacle
8oz [225g] Soft Dark Brown Sugar 6oz [175g] Golden Syrup
6oz [175g] Butter or Margarine
[Note: instead of syrup and treacle, substitute 12oz [350g] dark syrup]
3 slightly rounded teaspoons of Ground Ginger
1/2 teaspoon Cinnamon
2 teaspoons Baking Powder 8 fluid oz [225ml] Milk
1/2 teaspoon Bicarbonate of Soda 1 Free Range Egg beaten
Preheat the oven to Gas Mark 3 [325 Deg F or 170 Deg C ]. You will need a tin or dish measuring 8" x 12" and at least 2" deep, lined with baking parchment.
First prepare the base of the tin or dish by creaming together the butter and Demerara sugar with the lemon juice. Spread this mixture over the lined tin or dish. Next cut the peeled and cored apples into quarters, thinly slice and lay all over the base.
Now for the gingerbread. Sieve the flour, spices, baking powder and bicarbonate of soda into a large mixing bowl. In a saucepan warm the golden syrup, treacle, sugar and butter together until they are all melted but not too hot. In another pan warm the milk and beat the egg in to it.
Now pour all the liquids in to the flour mixture and beat together until all are well mixed. Pour over the apples in the tin/dish and bake for 1 hour. Leave in the tin/dish to cool for 30 minutes. Turn it out and carefully peel off the paper. Or just eat it hot with custard or chilled with pouring cream. Yum, yum!
Happy New Year - Wendy
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 35
Mid morning in late February. The wind swiftly moved patches of blue across the sky; a cold wind, but one worth tolerating, the bright day a refreshing change to recent mild but wet and cloudy weather. Heavy rainfall is reflected by the quaggy earth around the style beside St Brannock's Road. A little stream flows beneath the style, its water originating out of the moss opposite. The moss blankets a high rock face, providing shelter for both red campion and herb robert to grow.
The brighter day has encouraged birdsong to be heard once again on the Cairn. Blue tits and great tits whistle their merry little tunes within buddleia which lines St. Brannocks Road, whilst in the trees of Bailey's Wood two robins are having conversation with each other. The birdsong competes with the noise of the traffic so, with my folding seat over my shoulder, I headed up through Bailey's Wood to seek a place to sit and listen to the birdsong. As I set off, the sun peered through one of the breaks in the cloud. It's good to see the sun once again creeping over the hills, sending its rays into the Score Valley. What a lovely time of year this is, knowing that each day the sun will rise a little higher in the sky and hopefully bring with it a little more warmth. I stood to let the sun's glow hit my cold cheeks. For a moment I was tempted to take off my gloves and woolly hat, but no sooner the sun was behind a cloud again, the wind blowing to send the temperature plummeting. At least the weather was dry and bright and the birds felt the same.
As I headed up through the woods, the cooing of a pigeon added to the whistling tunes of the robins, blue tits and great tits whilst further up rooks squawked loudly. But it was a sight at ground level which brought a smile to my face; coltsfoot and the first lesser celandine were in flower on the Cairn. Their arrival showed that spring really must be around the corner, bringing with it other spectral delights. Climbing some steps, I admired the coral-spot fungus growing on branches put in place for path protection. Their orange colour enhanced by another burst of sunlight, reflecting on the shiny leaves of harts tongue fern which dominates the ground.
I gradually left the sound of the traffic behind and heard instead the melodic tune of a song thrush. It was coming from the summit of Bailey's Cleave, out of sight but still managing to throw its voice for all to be heard. As I neared the top of Bailey's Wood the trees gave way to blackthorn. Dense in places, a small opening allowed me to open up my chair which, having cleared it of ivy and debris, enabled me to get it in a comfortable and level position. A branch running along my right hand side made the perfect armrest, which in turn curved downwards and then in front of me, to make an ideal foot rest too.
Having made myself comfortable, I prepared to enjoy the surrounding birdsong. It was only then that I realised the wood had gone silent, but for the "teacher-teacher" call of a great tit down in the buddleia bushes. Its call became faster and harder to hear as the wind increased and caused the blackthorn's branches to clatter. I peered through the branches above and noticed the sky fast turning black. As the wood darkened, the great tit's call became desperate as though about to take its last breath. Then it stopped. For a moment, all in the wood went quiet.
Illustrated by: Paul Swailes
The silence was broken by a drop of rain hitting one of the nearby branches. One by one, the drops increased until the wood became a deafening deluge of rain. The surrounding branches offered little protection and I wondered whether I was better off staying put or getting on the move. Yet before I had the chance to make a decision, the rain came to an abrupt halt. As it did so, the great tit began its call once more, soon followed by the blue tits, the robins, the pigeon and finally the song thrush. Through the branches I watched the black cloud move off to the south, the sound of a seagull following on behind the shower.
To my right, I sensed movement. At first I took it to be the wind disturbing the decayed leaves, but the sound was more distinct. Suddenly a blackbird came into view, just a few feet away from me, overturning the rotted debris in search of food. I was keen to observe its activities but another sound to my left distracted me. Clearly, something was hopping from branch to branch. Minutes passed by and the sound gradually got louder. All at once, the branches close by began moving. I wondered if, like the blackbird, this creature would become aware of my presence. Then, for a fleeting moment, the source of the noise appeared just a few branches away. It caught sight of me and immediately fluttered off through the blackthorn. However, the size of the bird and its unique little upturned wing, were all I needed to see to recognise the bird species.
I then became aware of other steps. Heavier this time, I guessed they were unlikely to be that of a bird. I was right. Rather than the feathered variety, this was a species of the four-legged variety. Having caught my scent, a collie dog had made its way through the little opening and, with little space for both of us, had its wet nose virtually touching mine. Panting heavily and excited with his find, I could tell he desperately wanted to bark in order to inform his owner. I instinctively put one finger to my closed lips (as if the dog was going to understand). It clearly took my action as a sign for some sort of game. With that, both of his front muddy paws came up on to my chest and pushed me off my seat. By now its owner was calling its name, and all I had wanted was to find place of solace to listen to birdsong! Time was against me. The owner's call was getting louder. In a desperate attempt to divert the dog's attention, I pointed to the opening, gave my face a surprised expression and whispered "Look!" It was something I did with my own dogs to send them away, although the command also led them to bark extremely loudly. Thankfully, this dog turned his head and decided to go and look for what I had said. And didn't bark!
I considered staying put but then realised that when the owner walked past, the dog would merely come in through the opening again. Thoughts of what the owner might think having found a strange man sprawled out among bushes on a cold February day, made me hastily decide to get out from under the blackthorn. Having managed to pull myself to my feet before both dog and owner appeared from the summit of Bailey's Cleave, I began walking through the woodland as though nothing had happened - although I did place one arm across my chest to cover up the two muddy paw prints. As we passed on the path, we bid "Good day" to each other. It appeared that the owner was none the wiser.
"What are you doing in there?" I heard the owner ask. I turned to find him trying to get his dog out from where I had been sat. "It's okay," he said to me, "He loves foraging about in the undergrowth." I smiled and went to walk on. "By the way, does this belong to you?" I turned to see his collie stood beside him - his tail wagging frantically - having become the proud finder of a collapsible chair!
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 34
At Christmas time there is a great emphasis on the value of the family. Yet for some people friends can be just as valuable. If not more so. At least we can choose which friends we want to be with at Christmas; we can't always our families. And it is a fact of life that for some families this can cause a little stress.
On Christmas day I am looking forward to seeing one of my best friends; and what a dear friend she has been. Like any good friend, she is always there for me. She has helped me through some of my most difficult times and never minds what time of day or night I contact her. It is such a comfort knowing she is there for me at a moment's notice. I feel I can tell her any of my problems. Best of all, she never judges me on what I tell her, preferring instead to just listen whilst I ramble on. Sometimes I don't have to speak, yet she is still able to read my mind and interpret my muddled thoughts. Always at one with herself, her calm demeanour helps me to unwind and relax.
One of the things I like most about her is her appearance. She has an immaculate dress code and a wardrobe of clothes with colours ranging through the whole spectrum. And oh, how she loves her brooches.
No doubt on Christmas day she will wear one of her silver brooches attached to her holly coloured dress - a dress which only comes out of the wardrobe once a year. Green is a colour she wears off and on at the moment although as a rule she wears outfits of a softer shade during the winter months, cream and beige in particular. They match her hazel eyes beautifully. As winter turns to spring she wears but one colour: yellow. Blouses, jackets and sweaters are all of varying shades yet all the while she wears but one brooch - made out of amethysts, and in the shape of a violet. By mid-spring she will vary her colours once more, wearing pinks, blues and whites in particular. The amethyst is put away for another year and is replaced instead by a sapphire brooch.
Come summer I never know what colour she may be wearing when I see her! But whatever it is, it's sure to be shocking. It could be a dazzling scarlet or lemon, or a deep purple or burgundy. It's a time when she really does show how many colours are available. Yet for her brooch, she wears an emerald. Always an emerald. Then in the middle of summer she will surprise me by occasionally wearing a much softer colour,
lavender. And as summer progresses she'll wear it more and more frequently. Yellow, too, appears once more although these outfits aren't the bright yellow colours she wore earlier in the year. Instead, they are mustard in shade. This change to more mellow colours is a sign that she'll soon be wearing her orange clothes again along with her gold brooch, both colours perfectly matching her ginger hair.
In time she will start to wear brown, a sure sign that the holly coloured dress is once again being aired in preparation for Christmas day.
Wondering how she will look when I meet up with her and never failing to be amazed by the wonderful colours she wears, is just one small attribute that makes her the special friend that she is. Her name? Mother Nature. And to be specific, the trees and flowers of our beautiful countryside.
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 33
Autumn is upon us, yet it seems only yesterday that Blackthorn and Hawthorn were awash with white blossom. Now they are a mass of berries.
arrival of fruit within the
This season's surveys have been different in that I have been far from alone, the result, indirectly, from carrying out research for my book on the Cairn at Ilfracombe museum. Ensconced in an old newspaper, I was approached by the curator regarding the work of the Cairn Conservation Carers [the curator also being the leader of the Third Ilfracombe Girl Guides].
"It's just that I have a few girls who need to complete their Service to the Community and it must be an activity that will be of benefit. Can you help?"
My mind instantly recalled the
previous year's wildflower surveys and, more to the point, the time it took me
to undertake a comparatively small area.
More eyes would hopefully mean a bigger area covered. And so it was arranged that on the first
Sunday of every month between May and September, three Girl Guides, along with
their leader, would meet me outside the gates of the Pall Europe factory. From there we were to wander along the Old
Railway Line as far as
In order to give the Girl Guides the opportunity to scan the identification books, the actual recording was done by me. The books themselves caused amusement. Keen at first to use those that were colour coded, the girls soon came to realise that this did not always make recognition any easier. "If it's a pink flower, then it's bound to be in the blue section" became a standing joke. As did the phrase "never plan to do anything outside on the first Sunday in the month", for it rained on every survey, even in August when we started the walk in brilliant sunshine, and for the first time, actually felt warm. How we mocked one of the Guides for packing her gloves and raincoat! And how she laughed when, an hour later, the rest of us were drenched and cold!
For me, the survey had three rewards. Firstly, such an extensive record would not have been possible without the added help. Secondly, it was nice to see how on the last survey the Guides no longer needed their books to recognise species which had regularly been in flower. But better still, at the presentation of certificates and appreciation gifts, which took place at one of their meetings, younger Guides could be heard calling out: "When do next year's surveys begin?"
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 32
As some of you may know, I am currently writing a book on the Cairn in Ilfracombe. The response I had from my request for information was fantastic. Anecdotes poured in, plus sketches and old photographs. One person even gave me her ten-year record of wildflower observations. It has been six months since that initial request but new material still keeps coming in, with one lady in particular having taken it upon herself to keep a look out for old records.
Recently, without any real explanation, she handed me a small hardback book, its cover a green material similar to that of my old school hymnbook. Hymns, however, were not its subject matter, reflected in the gold lettering which read "Naturalists Journal". Turning the jacket I perused the first and only page with printed lettering: "The Terston Naturalists Journal. A convenient Note Book for keeping a permanent bound record of observations in continuous Diary Form. Index at End."
Below this was the publisher, George Waterston and Sons Ltd of Edinburgh and London, but no publishing date; although the words "seven shillings and sixpence" at the foot of the page (the "and sixpence" made out beneath a faded sticker), dated the book to pre-decimalisation.
Immediately, I flicked to the index at the back in anticipation of finding the book owner's alphabetical list of observations from the Cairn. Instead I found an address book style index, which only had the pale blue horizontal lines on the "A" page. Under "B" I at least found handwriting of a traditional style, characterised by scrolled uppercase letters. Yet the page heading showed it had been written in a more modern age: "Beauty - defined in Concise Oxford Dictionary 1995". Beneath were its definitions plus other references to the word "beauty". Clearly the rear of the book had not been used for naturalist's observations. But what of the front?
quickly leafed the pages, my fingers halting on page
three. Here at last was evidence of the
book's intended use. I noted the date
at the top of the page,
N.B. Also on page one it reads: "on table - 24.5.56". A further recording is made on page three on 15.6.56. Page 4 includes "top shelf as 15.6.56. second shelf as 15.6.56 except for genista." Further recordings are also made on 28.6.56, 6.7.56 and 13.7.56. Page 5 only reads "copolite = fossilised dropping of anything".
If anyone can help Steve unravel the mystery, please contact him, either direct or through Judie on 883544.
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 31
A story partly based on true facts
Once upon a springtime, a main road running out of town was being repaired. With temporary traffic lights in place, most drivers were happy to tolerate the extra time incurred upon their journey. One driver, however, was not prepared to wait. His name was Mr. White Van Man.
Mr. White Van Man didn't like his job very much. Every morning he would go in to work and collect his delivery list, and every day there would be far too many deliveries for him to finish when he should. Time, therefore, was precious to him. If there was one thing he hated most of all, it was road works. So when he came upon the queue of cars on the main road, he looked at his map for an alternative route. Luckily, he found one along a nearbycountry lane. The route saved him time, so long as he didn't meet any people walking along the lane. Meeting people meant having to slow down. Worse still, it meant losing the precious time he had gained. Frustrated, he decided one day to toot his horn whenever he saw some one. This had the desired effect, with people quickly getting out of his way.
On this particular morning, he saw a very old man who was standing in the lane with his back to him. Mr. White Van Man tooted and tooted until his thumb was sore, but still the old man did not move. Assuming he was deaf, Mr. White Van Man got out of his vehicle and loudly slammed his van door. Slowly, the old man turned to face him.
"I noticed you heard me slam my door!" shouted Mr. White Van Man.
"I did," replied the old man. "And I also heard your horn."
"Then why didn't you get out of my way?"
"Because I was enjoying this lovely spring morning," explained the old man.
"But that's not my concern!" snapped Mr. White Van Man, "I've got loads of parcels to deliver."
"And what, might I ask, is the rush?" enquired the old man.
"Because if I didn't rush, I wouldn't get them delivered on time. And then I probably wouldn't get home until this evening. Look, I'll go and get my list."
"I believe you," replied the old man, reassuringly, "But can you not see that by rushing you are missing out on all that is going on around you?"
"But there's nothing to see."
"Dear boy," said the old man with a chuckle, "Just look around you. Can you not see the wonderful primroses stretching along this bank? And look, close by you, the marvellous sunshine flowers of celandine. And just there, in the hedgerow, a little wren is bobbing about. And look at that nest, high up in the oak tree. Nature's own work of art. And all this, you see, is just the start."
"The start of what?" asked Mr. White Van Man.
"The start of spring. Soon the wood will be a carpet of bluebells; the hedgerow will be awash with cow parsley. Everything, you see, is coming to life!"
"And my life won't be worth living if I don't get these parcels delivered on time. And I won't be earning a living, either."
"Poppycock!" replied the old man.
"You don't know my manager," explained Mr. White Van Man. "If I took my time delivering this lot, I'd hate to think what time I'd finish. And if I went back to the depot with any of these parcels still on the van, I'd be shown the door. So now do you see? I have no choice but to rush."
With that Mr. White Van Man walked away and got back into his vehicle. He started the engine and the old man stepped to one side to let the van pass. Then, just as it went to pass him, the old man put his hand up. Mr. White Van Man pulled up alongside him and wound down the window.
"What now?" he asked rudely.
The old man smiled and then said, "A poor life this is, if full of care, we have no time to stand and stare."
"If you say so." And with that Mr. White Van Man sped away and then laughed at what the old man had said. As he did so, he glanced into his rear view mirror. Instantly he stopped laughing and turned icy cold. The old man had vanished.
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 30
By the time this Newsletter is popped through your letterbox or you pick it up from the Shop, we shall be at least six weeks past the shortest day; although in the weeks immediately following it, any difference to the evening sky can seem negligible. But with late December and early January seeing an accumulation of overcast days, the difference has been almost unnoticeable. Most of these days have been accompanied by wet weather, something which has led to me wasting a lot of time whilst waiting for a respite from the rain in order to take the dogs for their walk. And when it has abated, the respite was brief! For, no sooner had I shut the front gate when up blew the wind once more bringing swathes of drizzle with each gust.
dull, damp and windy days do, however, have their compensations. Fortunate to have a view of
The fact that winter robs the trees of their leaves, and so prevents them from providing any shelter from the rain, is of little significance to the sucks. They, of course, love the water. For us, however, the yearning for drier and warmer days can, particularly at this time of year, be a strong one. Whilst the lengthening days may not be a guarantee of better weather, one can rest assured that they will at least bring with them a wider variety of sights and smells to the countryside. It is a scene which, due to the amount of recent dreary days, I have found hard to picture. To help, I have been looking at photographs of spring wild flowers and summer scenes, beneficial up to a point, for I am a person who likes to look forward not backward.
Today, however, has helped remind me of what is to come. On drawing back the curtains I discovered, for once, a brighter day outside! Not a beautiful sunny day, for most of the sky was still covered in cloud, but unlike the low, grey cloud of recent weeks, the sky was instead a mass of white - with occasional patches of a certain colour I hadn't seen in the sky for some time! It was time to get outside before the weather changed back again. After a quick gulp of tea, a quick 'click' of Bourton's harness [he even sits and raises the correct leg to go through the required loop] and a not-so-quick hunt for Gifford's collar [I know he is terribly pleased with himself when he fetches things, but I wish he'd leave his collar where I put it] and finally we were off up the lane.
Outside, everything seemed so much brighter - even the puddles, reflecting the white of the sky above. The dogs, too, seemed to have a spring in their step, their paws splish-splashing with every stride. True, everything around was still very sodden. In the field, the white patches on the Friesian cows highlighted mud kicked up by their hoofs. On the far side of the field, a lone cow stood ankle-deep in the gushing Wilder Brook, drinking the water whilst washing her feet.
In the trees beside the field came a sound unheard of late in such cheery tones - birdsong! A great tit giving out his 'tea-cher, tea-cher' call; a fast-trilling song from a blue tit. Closer to hand, was the melodic tune of a robin and in the hedgerow up ahead, the distinctive 'churr' of a wren.
Suddenly the sound of the wind blowing through the naked branches took precedence. A cooler wind, its fresh feel upon my cheeks, was invigorating and a refreshing change to the recent mild temperatures. Heading back home, the breeze brought with it a vanilla fragrance wafting down the lane: courtesy of winter heliotrope, the only wild flower to adorn the lane during these early weeks of the year.
On my return, I heard a loud 'crack' behind me. I turned to see a magpie flying off, his beak laden with twigs - it's obviously that time of year again. Walking the path leading round to our back garden, I noticed
another sign of things to come: daffodil spears poking through the front lawn and on opening the back gate, I discovered more bird activity: a blue tit in the rhododendron bush eyeing up the nearby bird box. I quickly made the dogs sit and remained dead still. Moments later it perched itself on the hole of the bird box, gave his partner's potential home a long and thorough look before flying off into the hedgerow. His actions brought a smile to my face. Soon, hopefully, the bird box will be home to an expectant mother. And then, beneath the hedgerow, I noticed a sight whiich brought pleasure to my heart - the first snowdrop in flower. Soon the lawn will be a carpet of them. If the weather forecast is right, today's fine day is a one off. Tomorrow the drizzle, dullness and dreariness returns. But the memories of today will keep me going, helping me to look forward to all that nature has to offer in the months ahead.
Illustrated by: Peter Rothwell
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 29
Last year I began carrying out monthly wildflower surveys. My choice of locations, the Cairn and the lane running through Score Valley, were for very different reasons; whilst the former was an official record for the Cairn Conservation Carers group, the latter was for purely personal pleasure. Come autumn I then discovered a third beneficiary.
It came to light during a telephone conversation with a friend who is an art teacher. Wanting her pupils to practice with colour toning, she had set them the task of painting four seasonal countryside scenes. The exercise was a great success, her class enjoying their experiments with various shades of colour: the reds, pinks and whites of spring blossoms; the greens of summer grasses; the gold of autumn leaves and the greys and browns of winter barks. Pleased with the work they had produced, my friend then set her charges a harder assignment: to produce four further seasonal paintings, this time WITHOUT the colours they had previously used. At this point in our conversation I sensed a shade of panic in her voice. My friend, you see, is a "townie" through and through. Not that she hadn't planned to do some rural homework of her own in order to advise her class on what they should paint. Pressure of work, however, meant time was fast running out. Cue the phone call to me. "After all," she pleaded, "You must know all about rural colours. Don't you do a regular article down there called 'Rural Refractions', or something similar?" Having put her straight, I then consulted my autumn wildflower surveys and proceeded to suggest the various subjects that could be included in her pupils' orange-and-gold-free paintings.
White is still around at this time of year courtesy of a variety of wild flowers, including Enchanter's Nightshade, Yarrow, Hogweed and Bindweed. Old Man's Beard offers a subtle cream colour too. The stinging nettle is still just about hanging on to its green catkin-like flowers whilst the stalked, paler green flowers of Greater Plantain are still proudly standing to attention. Meanwhile the yellow-green heads of Ivy are just appearing. Both the Smooth and Common Cat's Ear and the stalked flowers of Goldenrod also provide yellow. All three have been flowering throughout the summer - unlike gorse, which according to my Cairn survey, began sporadically appearing in early November.
As for the colour blue, my friend's pupils will no doubt use it to create various shades of mauve and purple to provide their landscapes with patches of heather - a flower that is still evident in early autumn. They will also have no problem using their red paint pots, as there are numerous wild flowers of this colour still in evidence, including Herb Robert, Ivy-leaved Toadflax, Valerian and Red Campion. Hemp Agrimony is also still out, the tops of its flowers boasting the most subtle shade of pink; one which I suggested my friend's class might particularly want to practice painting. As for the fruits of autumn, the banning of orange would of course limit their choice. There are, however, plenty of alternatives such as blackberries or sloes.When out and about in the countryside, it is of course impossible to ignore the unique golden colours provided by our trees at this time of year. But it's nice to know that other colours are still around us, if not on such a grandiose scale.
Illustrated by: Paul Swailes
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 29
Last year I began carrying out monthly wildflower surveys. My choice of locations, the Cairn and the lane running through Score Valley, were for very different reasons; whilst the former was an official record for the Cairn Conservation Carers group, the latter was for purely personal pleasure. Come autumn I then discovered a third beneficiary.
It came to light during a telephone conversation with a friend who is an art teacher. Wanting her pupils to practice with colour toning, she had set them the task of painting four seasonal countryside scenes. The exercise was a great success, her class enjoying their experiments with various shades of colour: the reds, pinks and whites of spring blossoms; the greens of summer grasses; the gold of autumn leaves and the greys and browns of winter barks. Pleased with the work they had produced, my friend then set her charges a harder assignment: to produce four further seasonal paintings, this time WITHOUT the colours they had previously used. At this point in our conversation I sensed a shade of panic in her voice. My friend, you see, is a "townie" through and through. Not that she hadn't planned to do some rural homework of her own in order to advise her class on what they should paint. Pressure of work, however, meant time was fast running out. Cue the phone call to me. "After all," she pleaded, "You must know all about rural colours. Don't you do a regular article down there called 'Rural Refractions', or something similar?" Having put her straight, I then consulted my autumn wildflower surveys and proceeded to suggest the various subjects that could be included in her pupils' orange-and-gold-free paintings.
White is still around at this time of year courtesy of a variety of wild flowers, including Enchanter's Nightshade, Yarrow, Hogweed and Bindweed. Old Man's Beard offers a subtle cream colour too. The stinging nettle is still just about hanging on to its green catkin-like flowers whilst the stalked, paler green flowers of Greater Plantain are still proudly standing to attention. Meanwhile the yellow-green heads of Ivy are just appearing. Both the Smooth and Common Cat's Ear and the stalked flowers of Goldenrod also provide yellow. All three have been flowering throughout the summer - unlike gorse, which according to my Cairn survey, began sporadically appearing in early November.
As for the colour blue, my friend's pupils will no doubt use it to create various shades of mauve and purple to provide their landscapes with patches of heather - a flower that is still evident in early autumn. They will also have no problem using their red paint pots, as there are numerous wild flowers of this colour still in evidence, including Herb Robert, Ivy-leaved Toadflax, Valerian and Red Campion. Hemp Agrimony is also still out, the tops of its flowers boasting the most subtle shade of pink; one which I suggested my friend's class might particularly want to practice painting. As for the fruits of autumn, the banning of orange would of course limit their choice. There are, however, plenty of alternatives such as blackberries or sloes.When out and about in the countryside, it is of course impossible to ignore the unique golden colours provided by our trees at this time of year. But it's nice to know that other colours are still around us, if not on such a grandiose scale.
Illustrated by: Paul Swailes
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 28
August sees the holiday season at its peak with British seaside towns awash with fetes, fairs and carnivals. Such places, however, haven't always been in existence. In fact, prior to the mid eighteenth century, the term "coastal resort" had never been heard of. Until, that was, a physician named Dr Russell began recommending seawater for his Sussex patients. Sent from his Lewes practice to the dilapidated fishing town of Brighton, his patients were advised to bathe in, and even drink, the seawater to ease their ailments. His prescription was to turn around the town's fortunes and when in 1783 the Prince of Wales visited Brighton, expressing much pleasure at sea bathing, the activity soon became a popular pastime of the gentry. Other coastal towns soon cashed in on the idea, so much so that by the end of the nineteenth century much of the population could be found flocking to the seaside.
People were, of course, transported to the coast by that great nineteenth century manmade power horse, the steam engine. At Ilfracombe, a locomotive was first heard, seen and smelt in 1854. But how, one is left to wonder, did our Victorian holidaymakers choose to spend their time? Was everyday spent promenading along the front inhaling the benefits of the fresh sea air? Probably not, and certainly not in Ilfracombe, where the more adventurous explorer preferred to climb the surrounding hills for a better view.
And so it is today. Whilst perhaps choosing to holiday in this area on the initial basis of it being by the sea, many will use their time exploring, too, the surrounding rural delights. And in this little part of the world there are plenty. To name but a few . . . there is the variety upon The Cairn, allowing one to experience either shady woodland walks or the openness of Cairn Top orBaileys Cleeve. Either walk offers an array of wildflowers.
Running along the edge of The Cairn and then out of Ilfracombe is the solemnity of the Old Railway Line. Once through the Slade tunnel, one enters a world which is silent but for the occasional birdsong and the intermittent sound of running water. Alternatively there is the fluency of The Torrs, where cool offshore breezes bring with them the sound of bleating sheep standing upon its steep slopes. On the other side of town is the supremacy of Hillsborough allowing one to enjoy panoramic views over Ilfracombe and out to Lundy Island, across the Bristol Channel to the Welsh Mountains or eastwards to the dramatic coastline of Exmoor.
It is along this coastline that one can get a sense of anonymity upon the moor, feeling insignificant among the vast swathes of heather that boast a formidable presence at this time of year. In contrast one could choose to experience the tranquillity of the Sterridge Valley, its hills providing the quintessential sights and sounds of a summer countryside.
So yes, breathe in the coastal sea air to clear the airways to your lungs. But take in, too, the nearby rural delights to help release your brainwaves from the stresses and strains of daily life.
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 27
Countryside congratulations to the Berrynarbor Newsletter for reaching its centenary edition. What an achievement! Whilst other more well known publications have come and gone, the Newsletter has steadfastly delivered its bi-monthly pages of news and interest. For me personally, its two-month regularity of dropping through my letterbox makes it particularly special - all my other periodicals being monthly or quarterly.
Quarterly magazines are, of course, dated by the season for which they are published. Which led me to ponder . . . if our editor chose to title the newsletter by the seasonal time of year, what would the six issues be called?
April's would of course be christened the Spring edition. As the month progresses, our landscape is awash with swaying daffodils, the nodding flower heads of cow parsley, and the bowing branches of cherry trees heavy with blossom. In the garden, meanwhile, the male blue-tit is seen making continual visits to and from the nest box with food for its partner - without it she wouldn't put on that much needed weight to lay those all-important eggs. Although the month of June can boast ownership of mid-summer's day, it would be unwise to give its newsletter the same title. After all, one hardly expects to take a midsummer walk through the woods and see trees still coming into leaf or bluebells still on the ground. Yet this is just the case when the June edition is published. Perhaps then, it could be dubbed the "Early Summer" issue.
This in turn leads to August becoming the 'Late Summer' edition, and perhaps rightly so, even though this is the month for the family summer holiday. For there is a sting to August's tail. Was that a slight chill against my cheek as the evening breeze got up? And did I just notice a gold tinged leaf bid farewell to its tree? And what happened to those late evening dog walks through the woods? Come late August, it is then too dark.
October's instalment naturally becomes the Autumn edition - how long for, is open to debate. With climate change affecting our seasons and autumn in particular, gone are late September days of golden splendour. On the contrary, September is becoming the month of the Indian summer. Likewise November, once associated with cold temperatures, rain and even snow, is changing. Leaves now remain on trees into early winter, allowing November to become the month when beech trees are seen in all their splendour.
It is beech trees, along with oaks, that manage to cling on to their leaves at the dawn of December. Most other broad-leafed trees are bare. So too are the fields, the hedgerows, the heath lands and our gardens - just about. For each can boast its own December delicacy. In the fields, the first of the lambs are being born. Out from the hedgerows, the scent of vanilla is wafting into the air, courtesy of winter heliotrope. Upon the heaths, gorse flowers are on the increase again. And in our gardens, the blue tits, great tits, coal tits and blackcaps have come to the bird table, hungry for food. December's newsletter is undoubtedly the Winter issue.
And what of the February edition? Should it be titled "Late Winter"? After all, hours of darkness still out-strip the hours of daylight. The weather too can also be dull and overcast. In the countryside, the trees are still bare and the hedgerows have little on offer. In our garden, the flowerbeds are also devoid of colour whilst our bird feeders are frequently being visited due to natural winter supplies being almost out of stock. Surely, then, February is still very much a winter month?
Maybe not. At the start of the month the sun is setting around five o'clock. This is late enough for the commuter to leave the office, for the first time this year, in daylight. Come Saturday morning, if they awake to find a dry and bright day with winds in a favourable direction, then outside pursuits require only a jumper and shirt - the coat stays on the hanger. Meanwhile, the trees in the countryside are not quite as "bare" as they once were. A red glow has appeared, courtesy of their new buds, preparing to shoot forth. The hedgerows too are no longer bare; look closely and you will see the first of the wild violets and lesser celandine appearing. It's all a sign of what's to come. And whilst the bird table is still busy with customers, another one has appeared in the rhododendron bush eyeing up the nest box. He is no fool; for he knows spring isn't very far away and if he doesn't get in that box first, another bird is sure to gazump him.
But best of all about February is the snowdrops. Yes, the flowerbeds may still be bare but a lawn that is awash with snowdrops is enough to make the most hardened of pessimists believe that winter is departing. And all of this happens in February. What to call this issue? "The Premature Spring Edition" sounds about right to me.
Illustrations by: Paul Swailes
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 26
If there was a season best suited for outside decorating - or painting, to be more precise - then surely, it has to be autumn. True, one cannot guarantee a dry spell of weather, but when it comes, the daytime temperatures are just right for applying that much needed coat of paint to an outside wall or windowsill. Leave until winter and the undercoat cracks with the cold. Undertake in the summer and the baking sun dries out the gloss before you can see where you have been. Come spring, that unexpected shower causes the emulsion to drip on the outside masonry.
This is, of course, my own personal philosophy on painting - I'm no Handy Andy or Tommy Walsh! Quite the opposite. In fact, given the choice to read either the instructions on a pot of paint or the descriptions in a wildflower book, I know what my choice would be! But that's not to say there are still times when recording wildflowers with pen and paper need to be swapped for the more important duty of brightening up a wall with paintbrush and pot.
Illustrated by: Dean Hawker
Whilst such duties mean a temporary suspension to my countryside walks, I am at least fortunate to be able to look out on beautiful rural scenes whilst carrying out such work. What's more, they are scenes that lend themselves to autumn; for wherever I paint I look out on to trees that are majestically turning golden. If it's the kitchen window I am painting, then the wooded hillside of The Cairn looks down upon me. If it's the wall to the back bedroom, then the woods clinging onto the Score Valley look at me from afar. And if it's the front of the bungalow, then the trees in Bicclescombe Park stand close by inspecting my every brush stroke.
Last autumn, however, I was applying some gloss to the front door when my strokes were suddenly interrupted - not by an unexpected visitor, nor by a sudden telephone call. It was the sound of a girl's scream, somewhere behind me, that stirred me from my semi-conscious painting trance. Swiftly, I turned my head and instantly noticed a young girl, aged around 10 or 11, perhaps even 12, lying deep within a row of hydrangea bushes bordering the park. In front of her stood two boys of around the same age, laughing to themselves and doing "high fives", both seemingly satisfied with their successful attempt at pushing the girl as far into the bush as they possibly could.
I stood for a moment as the poor girl attempted to clamber out from the bush and was about to go over and assist her (the boys did not seem intent on helping) when she suddenly sprung to her feet. Momentarily annoyed with the two boys, my emotion changed to bewilderment when I heard the girl say to the boys, "That was great fun. Push me in again". Which, of course, they more than happily did, to the simultaneous sound of screaming, then cheering, and "high-fiving". This ritual was carried out a third, a fourth and then a fifth time. By now the poor hydrangea bush really was starting to look the worse for wear.
When the girl asked to be thrown into it a sixth time, I instinctively disregarded my half-glossed door and, with paintbrush still in hand, began a slow wander across the road. It was the two boys who first became aware of my impending attendance at their scene of joviality. To put it simply, they just froze - but not before they had transformed themselves into images that the Archangel Gabriel himself would have been proud of. Bless! Their innocence, of course, was just slightly tainted by the vision of their female accomplice, still up to now unaware of my presence and still trying to climb her way out of the bush. When she finally managed to heave herself out of the almost flattened bush she was obviously still unaware of my presence. "Throw me in again, throw me in again!" she exclaimed. Discreetly, one of the boys pointed behind her, to which she gave out another scream as she swirled her head round and discovered me standing the other side of the bush.
I must admit the scene was rather comical, the girl now looking like she had just seen a ghost whilst the boys were standing as if to attention. Inside me, I felt the desperate desire to laugh but I knew I must not. Instead, I forgot the gap of 30-odd years that bridged our ages and said, "Hi guys! How yer doin?" My inquiry got no response. The three of them just continued to stare at me, occasionally allowing themselves the opportunity to blink.
"Don't mind me", I continued, "I'm just here to watch you have your fun. Please, do carry on". It was the girl who finally plucked up the courage to speak. "Well come on then", she said, looking at her male companions as though they were daft. "You're not afraid to are you?" Of course, when a girl asks a boy a question like that, the boy feels compelled to carry out the challenge. So instinctively, yet at the same time reluctantly, the boys went to push her into the bush again.
"Mind you," I quickly added, "It would seem such a shame to kill the poor bush. It's given so much pleasure to people this summer."
"And how would you know?" the girl asked, with a noticeable assertion in her voice. Thinking quickly, I replied, "Because I have sat by my lounge window, just over there and notice people smile and point at it as they've gone past". (Bit of a white lie there, I must admit, but I had to somehow keep the upper hand.) "Still", I continued, "Like I've said, don't let that spoil your fun!"
"But isn't the bush already dead?" one of the boys tentatively asked. His question took me aback momentarily - not because of what he said, but the innocent way in which he asked it. Somehow, I could sense he hadn't asked the question as an excuse for his actions. On the contrary, he appeared to genuinely think that the hydrangea bush, its leaves drooping and brown and its petals curled and pale, was actually dying. If I thought he was trying to fool me, his next question confirmed to me that he wasn't. "Doesn't the park keeper come and dig it up and replace it with another next year?"
Before I could reply, his chum standing next to him interrupted.
"Of course he does stupid! Haven't you seen him do it to the other flowers in the park?" His pal was referring to the park's summer bedding plants. "Well if the bush is going to be dug up anyway," the girl shouted, her eyes full of excitement once more, "Then let's carry on!"
"To answer your question," I quickly remarked, looking at the first boy, "No, the plant isn't dead and no, the park keeper does not dig it up and replace it every year. Now if you've all got a moment, I'll explain to you what the park keeper does in fact do to it to make sure it comes back to life next spring."
There then followed a brief little chat about the effects autumn has upon plants, and how they are just nature's way of preparing them for the winter ahead, so protecting them against the low temperatures and lessening of daylight that would otherwise cause them to die. At the end, the three youngsters strolled off through the park with their tails between their legs, whilst I returned to my glossing - having meanwhile breathed a huge sigh of relief.
On completing the door, I went indoors to put the kettle on. Sitting on the kitchen bench waiting for it to boil, I reflected for a moment on what had just taken place. In doing so, part of me became filled with the satisfying thought that I had prevented some youngsters from doing any further harm to the shrub - and without confrontation. Would I have achieved the same result, I asked myself, if I had gone over to them shouting something like: "What in hell's name do you think you lot are up to?"
Yet at the same time a feeling of dismay rose within me. It was, after all, a shame to discover children with such poor insight into their rural surroundings. Luckily, my (disappointment) was not to last for long. That evening I received a distraught telephone call from a teacher friend, panicking that she had no time to go out collecting items from the countryside for the autumn scene she was planning for her children's next art lesson - and could I please make sure it wasn't just items that were brown and yellow, as she wanted to use the lesson to teach the youngsters how in autumn the countryside is still full of varied colours.
"But I'm supposed to be painting the. . . oh of course I will!" I replied.
I decided the painting could wait - well if it's something to do with the countryside then that's a good enough excuse for me to stop painting!
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 25
A garden full of roses can give so much pleasure to the admirer. Their variations in colour, diversity in shade, size and appearance, plus that distinctive aroma that many of the species emit, all add to the pleasure. What's more, many of them continue flowering throughout the summer and well into autumn (and into the early months of our mild Devonian winters, come to that).
In contrast, the wild rose I have recently been admiring up the lane, the Dog Rose, has completed its flowering for this year. Its pale pink petals will not appear again until next June, though its red hips can be seen come autumn. Rosehip is of course rich in vitamin C and makes a lovely sweet drink. I personally remember rosehip in the form of a syrup, brought round in a huge jug by the school dinner lady whenever milk puddings were on the menu.
Though the pink petals of the Dog Rose have now bade farewell to the lane, a paler shade of pink has appeared bidding the lane a friendly late summer greeting. It belongs to the blossom of the bramble. Amazingly, over four hundred different species of bramble exist in Britain, each variety
falling into one of three categories: erect, sprawling and climbing. Many have been christened lovely country names, including Brummelty Kites, Cock-Brumble and Lady Garten Berries.
The bramble, however, has also been mentioned in much less endearing terms. To find this reference, one need look no further than the great Book of God itself. Flick through the pages of the Old Testament to the book of Isaiah (chapter 34, verse 13 to be exact) and discover how the Lord carried out his curse on Edom: "Thorns will run over her citadels, nettles and brambles her stronghold".
Ironically, centuries later the bramble would then be used for keeping curses away. Heavy with thorns, its branches were strewn around graves, preventing evil spirits from entering the pardoned body that lay within the bramble ring. As well as being circled by brambles in death, being arched by them in life was also once an aid to the human body; walk beneath an archway of brambles, so it was believed, and you would be cured of your illnesses. One wonders if this included the illness that is said to be bestowed upon the picker of a blackberry after Michaelmas day, when the devil is believed to defile them. (This belief is probably based upon the fact that any blackberry picked after this date will have gone over and might not be too kind on the stomach in any case!).
Of course, it goes without saying that blackberries can also be a most wonderful "cure" to the human stomach if empty, particularly when they are mixed with apples into a pie or crumble; and as a herbal drink, blackberry tea is most enjoyable. The juice of blackberries is also a valuable source of nutrition for wildlife, with butterflies being the main benefactors. Snails, on the other hand, benefit from the leaves, using them for hibernation. The leaves have also been utilised as a remedy for burns and swellings, whilst further down the plant (going underground to be precise), the roots have been used in the preparation of orange dye.
Returning to the curse of Edom, I can certainly empathise with the choice of plants used; I know only too well the effects that bramble bushes and nettles can cause when they become overgrown, our garden certainly being cursed with them when we moved into our property. (Whatever her spell was, the Wicked Witch of the West Country certainly succeeded on our garden - she must have been drained of her powers for months afterwards!).
Yet up the lane, the annoying nettle seems to sit comfortably in its setting, whilst again helping the wildlife around it. Butterflies, such as the Red Admiral, Small Tortoiseshell and Comma are particular beneficiaries, the nettle being a vital food source for them. The young shoots of nettles were also once a vital source of nutrition for humans, being high in vitamins and minerals. Having a taste similar to spring cabbage or mature spinach, it was sold as a mainstay vegetable back in the eighteenth century. Both beer and soup can also be made from nettles, the former using young tops; and, alongside its blackberry counterpart, nettle tea can also be found on the shelves of most health shops. It is made from drying the leaves and has detoxifying qualities. Whilst detoxification is one of its main attributes, the nettle has been used for many other illnesses ranging from sore throats, bronchitis, asthma, rheumatism and arthritis. It has also been used to help skin problems including eczema and dermatitis as well as, oddly enough, burns and bites (but do you have to get stung first?). Nettles have also been used in cleansing agents for the face and hair.
But how did the nettle get its name? To find this answer, one has to go back to ancient times when the tough fibrous stems were made into a strong linen-type cloth; so strong, in fact, they could be used on fishing boats as ropes and nets. But for many people the nettle will always be that annoying plant that unexpectedly stings them as they walk along a country path. Cattle, however, do not share this point of view - and not because they are rarely ever met walking along narrow, nettle prodding footpaths. In any case, if you were to meet some in such a setting, they would be more than happy to move aside for you, for cattle are immune to the nettle's sting.
There is, of course, a natural remedy that is usually close by whenever the nettle stings. Find a dock leaf; rub against the affected area and the sting goes instantly. Yet the dock leaf hasn't always been used purely as a remedy. In the days before greaseproof paper, dock leaves were used for wrapping around slabs of butter.
Where the bramble may prick and the nettle might sting, another wildflower hinders the rural walker by attachment: Goosegrass. This is a plant better known for its fruits than its flowers, the latter being pale green and barely noticeable to the passer by. The fruits, however, have special hooked bristles that cling to the passer by and enable the whole plant to become stuck to their clothing, like Velcro. One has to admire its ingenious method of dispersing its seeds, travelling miles away from the place of origin whilst clinging to a dog's coat or a walker's sock. At the moment there seems an abundance of Goosegrass up the lane; or perhaps it is the lack of colour on show, leaning my concentration towards the various "greens" on display. At least in places white offers a contrast in the form of two "Weeds", Hog- and Bind-.
Hedge Bindweed is of course another headache for gardeners, being a strangler of any branches it can attach itself to. Yet up the lane its white funnel-shaped flowers are unable to take a stronghold. (Hedge Bindweed differs from Field Bindweed; the latter's flowers being edged with pale pink).
In a patch where the lane receives little sunlight, even in summer, there is another offering of white. Here, a large clump of Enchanters Nightshade is on show, each tiny flower sparkling like the early stars of dusk. Occurring naturally in large numbers where lanes or gardens are shady, this delicate species of wildflower really is most enchanting.
Close by is Hedge Woundwort. Another wildflower that favours shady places, the origin of its name is self-explanatory as it was once used in the healing of wounds. It is a member of the mint family, producing attention-seeking reddish purple flowers that radiate the lane at this time of year.
Here and there another purple wildflower accompanies the lane, though much deeper in colour. The Common Thistle, or Spear Thistle as it is also known, rests its flowers on green egg-shaped heads, giving the plant its own unique style. A larger variety of the plant is called the Scots Thistle, though this is in fact a rarity in Scotland, leading to speculation that the Spear Thistle is in fact the true thistle of Scotland.
The Spear Thistle also has historic connections with Scotland's Danish neighbours - a connection that did the Danes little favour in their era of invasions. On one such invasion, at the battle of Largs, the Danes began screaming aloud as they unexpectedly charged through a mass of Spear Thistles. Their cries of pain were to be their downfall, alerting their defenders of their supposedly secret attack.
Another thistle-named flower is also to be found along the lane at the moment, though it is in fact a member of the dandelion family. Properly known as the Sow-thistle, it has many other local names. One is "Hares Lettuce", as the leaves are said to give strength to hares when they are overcome by heat. Another name is "Milky Dickle", perhaps because it is believed to increase the milk of sows once they had farrowed. Leaves from the Smooth Sow-thistle were once used as part of a winter salad in this country, whilst in Greece they are still regularly used. In contrast, the French feed their snails on Sow-thistle leaves to fatten them up ready for selling.
Further up the lane, where it meets the stream, the flowers of the Great Hairy Willowherb have now gone over. But another member of the willowherb family has replaced it and can be seen all along the lane instead. The Broad-leaved Willowherb, with its delicate purplish pink flowers, spreads itself by dispersing its hairy seeds in the wind - no wonder it is the most common of the willowherb family.
Though the streamside wildflowers of early summer have now gone over, another has appeared that particularly endears itself to riverbanks. It is the wildflower of Meadowsweet, sending a lovely fragrance down the lane as it catches the wind. Strewn across floors, Meadowsweet was once used as an indoor "air freshener". Queen Elizabeth I was a particular fan - so much so, she would demand it be placed on the floors of any home she was about to visit! Like other wildflowers, Meadowsweet has had spiritual connections. Druids regarded the flowers as sacred, whilst witches believed that the plant enabled them to leave their physical state. Also like many other wildflowers, Meadowsweet has been, and still is, used as a remedy; though Meadowsweet's connection is perhaps one of the most fascinating. Made up as it is of aspirin-like substances, aspirin being a tablet that can cause acidic reactions in the body,
Meadowsweet has at the same time been used in remedies for acid and indigestion!
As August rogresses and September passes by, I can reflect upon the wildflowers I have admired down the lane. The Lesser Celandine that announced the climax of winter and the onset of spring seem a while away now,but it is comforting to know they will appear again next February. I have watched Cow Parsley herald the start of spring, looked on as the Bluebells swayed in late spring breezes and stood in awe when the Foxgloves of summer towered above me. And throughout all of these seasons, the delicate flowers of Red Campion and Herb Robert have never been too far away.
I hope you have enjoyed being my walking companion as I have strolled down the lane, admiring and finding out about the wildflowers around me, as much as I have.
Illustrated by: Dean Hawker
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 24
The lane running through Score Valley is but a quarter of a mile long from its start by the cadet hut to its finish high up on St Brannocks Road. Yet in that short distance it encounters back garden boundaries, field hedgerows, woodland margins, open grassland, meandering streamside, steep banks and towering walls. Within each setting Mother Nature has elected specific wildflowers to represent them. Those that were appointed for the spring term of office have now stepped down allowing new wildflowers to be returned for the duration of early summer. So as May gives way to June, a walk up the lane takes on yet another new look.
The first wildflower to be spotted is a single yellow poppy. Unlikely to be the Yellow Horned Poppy found closer to the coast and on beaches, this lone flower is probably a Welsh Poppy. A native in the southwest as well as Wales and Ireland, it is likely to be a garden escape if spotted elsewhere. Whether this flower is an escapee or one sitting naturally in its surroundings is open to debate, though it is but a seed's throw from a back garden fence. Either way, its bold attempt to stand out amongst the surrounding nettle leaves gets my admiration as well as lifting my spirits.
Lifting one's spirits is something closely associated to the next wildflower I spot. Up on my right hand side, at the edge of a small copse of trees, are a few clumps of St John's Wort. A herbal remedy for depression, some doctors have been known to prescribe it ahead of conventional medicines. In the past it was used for a somewhat different cure, being once thought to ward off witchcraft and spells. (Not so sure my GP would prescribe it if I told him that was the problem!) The past did, however, find a more practical purpose for this flower, being used in pagan summer festivals. This was later applied to the Christian celebration of St John's Day on the 24th June, from which the flower's name originated. The plant though is less useful to our farmland four legged friends, being poisonous to stock and in particular making their skin sensitive to sunlight.
A few strides further up the lane, where the copse begins to thin a little, a wildflower is growing that is also poisonous to livestock and a particular nuisance to horses, who seem to love it - Ragwort. But as with everything in nature, where there is a negative there is sure to be a positive. In the case of Ragwort it applies to the caterpillar of the Cinnabar Moth which is able to feed on the plant without any lethal consequence. On the contrary, the poison is of great benefit to the moth, acting as protection against any birds that may be viewing the caterpillar as a tasty snack. Humans too can suffer at the hands - or nose to be precise - of this flower. Bruise Ragwort's lovely flat-top flowers, whose bright yellow florets smile sweetly at you in their packed clusters, and discover why the plant is also called "Stinking Willy"!
Along the lane a little further the trees hanging onto the valley's steep incline disperse. Here a wildflower comes into view that loves to flourish on any bank side - the Foxglove. Also known as Fairy Bells, this flower does indeed wave over our countryside that extra bit of summer magic in the same way that Primroses wave a wand over a Devon spring. But beware of the Foxglove's spell ! Strikingly beautiful though it may look, its fairy bells wave a sinister wand as you drive past, just like their roadside counterpart of spring, Cow Parsley. For the Foxglove is also completely poisonous. Once again, however, nature steps in to counteract the plant's negative feature, extracting the drug Digitalis from its leaves in order to help in the treatment of heart complaints. In the past it was also used for treating oedema and blood pressure. So not all is bad about this wildflower whose name has nothing at all to do with foxes or gloves but more to do with people and music. With "fox" being a corruption of the word "folk's" and a "gliew" being an Anglo-Saxon instrument with many small bells, one can immediately see how this tall conspicuous flower assumed its name.
Whilst woodland and steep banks characterise one side of the lane, a hedgerow accompanies the other. Here at the moment Hogweed is in abundance accompanied in places by its "parent", Giant Hogweed. Belonging to the carrot family, a clan of wildflowers who look very much alike, each plant member has a specific feature that tells them apart. In the case of Hogweed, its distinguishing marks are the unique broad and hairy leaves that, if picked whilst still young and boiled, are said to taste just like asparagus. (Perhaps I will wait until there is an asparagus shortage to find out! In the meantime I'll stick to visiting Evesham.) Pigs, however, love Hogweed whether the plant is young or old and it was once a major source of sustenance for them, hence the name. The plant does have a negative side, one that is bestowed upon mankind this time. The hollow stems exude a substance that can cause the skin to become sore or even blister in sunny weather. And on the subject of weather, Hogweed has become a plant that is rarely out of flower in Devon, thanks in part to our ever milder winters.
All the same, Hogweed is undoubtedly at its most prolific just now. In contrast, Nipplewort is only just appearing alongside it. So-called because of the shape of its small yellow flowers, this is a plant regarded more of a troublesome weed than a wildflower. Perhaps gardeners could make use of this weed by picking its young leaves and then using them as part of a salad as they did in days of yore?
A break in the hedgerow at the farmer's gate brings another wildflower onto the scene. Scattered about the ground White Clover has appeared, a plant that helps out nature in more ways than one - or three, to be precise. Firstly it is a very economical fodder crop, as the sheep and cows that come into this particular field often prove. Secondly it is a great source of nectar for bees. Lastly, but by no means least, bacteria in the nodules of the plant's roots convert nitrogen into a most useful plant nutrient. Nature really does provide for its own!
Further up the lane, the East Wilder brook meanders momentarily up against the hedgerow. Here a different spread of wildflowers are always appearing, ones that prefer the damp atmosphere of a streamside. Hemlock is one such flower. Yet another member of the carrot family, it is distinguishable by the purple blotches on its stems and the offensive odour of its flowers. Once again, this is a plant that is deadly. In fact, Socrates is believed to have drunk its poison in fatal quantities as a means of his execution, no wonder it also called Devils Blossom! The flower does, however, have other names of a more productive nature, including Gypsy's Curtain, Lady's Needlework and Lady's Lace.
Near to the Hemlock another streamside companion is beginning to show itself. The Great Hairy Willow herb produces ornate flowers with purplish pink petals and cream coloured stamens. These colours give the plant its other name, Codlins-and-Cream, "codlin" being an old word for an apple. The plant though can at times be a bit too creamy - not in the sense of colour but in texture. Growing in thick clusters as it does, it can become so "clotted" it will almost block streams.
Illustrated by: Dean Hawker
Opposite the streamside, the bricked wall of the old chapel towers high above the lane. Here the snapdragon shaped flowers of Ivy-leaved Toadflax are in abundance, spraying the wall with patches of lilac. First used in rock gardens back in the 17th century, the plant took on the characteristic of one of its other names, Roving Jenny. Gradually it roamed away from its formal enclosures, spreading along any wall, rocky side or stony ground it could find. Indeed, its method of movement leads to it also being christened Creeping Jenny. It also became known as mother of thousands, which is hardly surprising as it has such a good reproductive system. Curling away from the light, its long stalks find dark crevices into which it deposits seeds a-plenty. The plant is also resistant to drought, meaning it can carry on its method of multiplication in even the driest of summers.
Whether our coming summer will be dry or wet remains to be seen. What is certain is that as summer progresses, new wildflowers will appear up the lane that are adept at coping with dry spells and soaring temperatures, but we will leave these for the August issue.
RURAL REFLECTIONS 23
Bidding farewell to winter, the lane up Score Valley had suddenly come to life. Almost overnight it seemed the hedgerows had awoken with yellow, red, white and blue having been sprayed upon them now, with winter transforming itself into spring, the lane begins a display that will, as always, be its most impressive of the year. And like the wildflowers of late winter, these will put on a display that is also patriotic. Enter stage left the reds of Campion and Herb Robert, from stage right, the whites of Cow Parsley, Ramson and Garlic Mustard, and from centre stage, the blue of Birdseye - not forgetting Bluebells of course, the quintessential flower of spring.
Red Campion will take lead role in this performance, its masses of flowers being on show all along the lane during April and May. Come summer it will be relegated to the chorus line and later in the year to just walk-on parts. Even in the winter, however, it will still make cameo appearances, particularly where it can find sheltered parts in the hedgerow. Also known as 'red catchfly' and 'red robin', the flowers were originally only found in woodlands; however, they were at the same time flirty little flowers, seeking cross-pollination wherever they could with other wild flowers growing just beyond the woodland boundaries. Nowadays, of course, Red Campion is as much a part of our countryside as any other wildflower.
The award for best supporting role must go to Campion's pink counterpart, Herb Robert. Personally, I love this delicate little flower. Small though its petals may be, their change of colour from purple at the stem, to pink at the tip is so subtle, one barely notices it; and edged by white as each petal is, this tiny flower offers the walker so much to admire. Its leaves are also to be cherished, sometimes offering a deep maroon colour, enabling the plant to stand out amongst the hedgerows. Herb Robert can also boast a sub-species that is a choice rarity in southern and western England. Called 'little robin', its stamens have a unique yellow colour.
The first wildflower of the carrot family to bloom this year will also soon be present up the lane: Queen Anne's lace, or to give it its more well known name, Cow Parsley. It will of course grow much more in abundance along our busy roads, the heads nodding enthusiastically as we drive past them; but greet us heartily though they might, they are a wildflower not to be messed with. This is a poisonous roadside companion.
Where the white of Cow Parsley will soon be present along the open lane, so the white of Ramsons will soon appear in the shade beneath the arching sycamores. Ramsons is of course a wildflower that reaches one's nose before catching one's eye! Indeed, many a woodland walk at this time of year can reek of garlic as its flowers are unintentionally trodden upon. The leaves, however, are edible and are said to add zest to peanut butter sandwiches; as it is one of my favourite spreads, watch this space!
Another form of garlic is already appearing up the lane against the high walled boundary of the chapel. Here, stems of Garlic Mustard are already emerging; their peaks soon to be showing off tiny white flowers. Like Ramsons, they too give off a pungent smell of garlic if crushed. However, Garlic Mustard doesn't just benefit peanut butter addicts though, as orange tip and green veined white butterflies also reap nutritional reward from it. Peculiarly, this wildflower is known by another name that makes me wonder why I find it growing up against a wall, being also called Jack-by-the-Hedge.
And so onto the blues. Birdseye, or Germander Speedwell as it is also known, is a small, bright blue flower with a tiny dot in the middle. Being one of our most delicate of wildflowers, its petals fall easily if picked. Perhaps this is why a superstition arose that harm would come to the eyes of either the picker or their mother. So don't say you haven't been warned!
Bluebells of course are a natural part of late spring, carpeting many of our woodlands. However, given sufficient shelter they will flower within a hedgerow, the Score Valley lane being no exception; and how I do so much look forward to admiring them once again as I stroll up it! As well as occasionally appearing within the hedgerows, others will flower in the shade alongside the Ramsons. Most of these will be the usual colour of violet blue but hopefully others will grow that will be a most beautiful shade of pink, as in previous years. Those that catch the dappled sunlight really do stand out amongst the rest, whilst those in the shade become almost illuminated.
Further up the lane, where the meandering East Wilder brook comes to meet the hedgerow, another blue wildflower will hopefully once again don me with its presence: the water Forget-Me-Not. With their distinctive yellow centres, these flowers offer a contrasting paler blue to that of Birdseye and the Bluebell.
But the lane will not be just full of reds, whites and blues over the next couple of months. Yellow will continue to be sprayed everywhere with existing celandines and dandelions. And another yellow flower will appear too, at the farmer's gate: the bulbous buttercup. It's the earliest of the three common grassland buttercups to flower and will have gone over by the end of May. Known in olden times as St Anthony's turnip, the whole plant is in fact poisonous and its sap can quite easily blister the skin. I'll just admire it in the meadow from the gate, I think.
Then, just before May is out, one final wildflower will greet the lane. Growing against a wall that was clearly built to support a particularly steep valley slope, I look forward to once again seeing Wall Pennywort. Also known as Navalwort, their leaves are arguably more striking than their flowers. Distinctively glossy and almost rubbery in appearance, they outshine their pale green flowers. Being small and tubular in shape, I have nicknamed these wildflowers 'premature foxgloves'. Whether it will catch on, so that in years to come wildflower books will say, 'wall pennywort, also known in millennium folklore as the premature foxglove', is something I shall have to wait and see. But I haven't got my hopes up!
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 22
It's late January as I take a stroll up the lane running deep within the Score Valley. Clouds starve the day of golden sunlight. My spirits are bright, however, for heart-shaped leaves are appearing around me in ever-increasing amounts. They announce that their striking yellow flowers will soon be on show once more. With the arrival of Lesser Celandine along the lane, I know that winter is reaching its finale and that spring will soon be on stage.
Another leaf is also starting to show itself. Taking on the shape of a lion's tooth, or "dent de lion" as our French friends call it, the dandelion will also soon be on show. Each holding up to two hundred florets, their bright round flowers will also bring a much-needed splash of yellow up the lane.
A pest to our flowerbeds and lawns, a gardener might regard the dandelion as a useless weed. "Useless", however, would be quite the wrong word to use. After all, it has various medicinal purposes; not to mention its ability to make good home-made wine. What's more, its leaves are great in salads, being full of vitamins A and C. Its roots can also make an agreeable substitute for coffee. And did you know that dandelion latex provided the Soviet Union with rubber during World War Two?
As well as springtime visual pleasure, dandelions also offer recreational fun on turning to seed. As a child, I recall playing "how many years" on the school field at break times. The rules were simple: you blew on the seeds until they were all gone. The amount of blows that you took then foretold the number of years it would take, for example, for you to become rich. I have since heard many regional variations of this game, one of Devon's being "tell the time".
Whilst dandelions will provide a deeper shade of yellow to that of the lesser celandine, another wild flower will soon be offering a much paler yellow. Known in Latin as the "Prima Rosa", or first rose of spring, the primrose is of course synonymous with Devon hedgerows and springtime. And though the primrose may also appear at the same time and in the same places as the dandelion, there the similarity ends. For whilst the dandelion is regarded as a garden weed, the primrose is seen as a bonus within any garden soil; so much so, it has become extinct in some parts of the countryside through being dug up.
But in other ways, the primrose story has a parallel with many of its wildflower counterparts, for it too has had its uses as a herbal remedy. In the Middle Ages it was used in the treatment of kidney disorders, rheumatism and gout, and has long since been used as a herbal remedy for bronchitis and coughs.
Few wild flowers can boast their own special day, but it was Benjamin Disraeli who decided that the date of his birth should be named after his favourite flower. Henceforth, the Nineteenth of April became Primrose Day. The primrose, too, inspired Shakespeare. Aware that too few insects were around to pollinate all the wild flowers of early spring, he made reference to the "pale primroses that die unmarried".
Another wild flower that hopefully will re-appear down the lane early this spring is Stitchwort. Usually growing in clumps, their masses of small white flowers rest upon slender, brittle stems. Curious name, "stitchwort". Perhaps it was once used as a remedy for a stitch or a sudden pain. Well, once it's out in flower maybe I'll run up the lane and get a stitch to find out. But then maybe not!
Illustrations by: Dean Hawker
In any case, I might miss that shady area along the hedgerow where a small clump of sorrel grew last year. Distinctive by their heart shape, the leaves of wood sorrel have a sharp, acid taste being used once upon a time as flavouring. As for its bell-shaped white flowers, they have a much greater claim to the past. Some will have you believe this delicate flower was the shamrock that St Patrick used to illustrate the Holy Trinity to the pagan Irish. (Actually, the suckling clover has a greater claim but that's another story!)
Another flower that will appear during March and be a friend to the lane until late November is the common fumitory. I love this flower. Short and squat though it might be, every stem shoots out up to fifty small floral spikes beginning pale pink at the inner and finishing a deep maroon at the tip. So much from so little and on display for so long. So with the common fumitory providing the red down the lane, the sorrel and stitchwort the white, I suppose we need a blue. And if we stretch the spectrum a bit we find it, with a sprinkling of Dog Violets soon to re-appear. Did you know that these dainty little flowers actually hang upside down? To admire a patch of violets is to give thanks to our humble and hardworking ant. It is the ant, you see, that disperses the violets' seeds.
So much within our countryside to admire, enjoy and give thanks for at this time of the year.
RURAL REFLECTIONS 20
Have you ever read a story or listened to the words of a song or perhaps even looked at a picture and thought, "That's a pretty good reflection of my life"? Well that happened to me recently, except I wasn't reading a book, or listening to the radio, or walking around an art gallery, I was sitting on a bench.
The seat in question lies at the very top of the Cairn, just outside Ilfracombe. Recently placed there, the bench is one of a few that have been situated about the area by the Cairn Conservation Carers group. The bench is nothing special to look at, its cosmetic appearance literally taking a back seat to the more important matter of durability. It is, after all, subject to all matter of wind and weather up there. Not that it was the bench I was looking at when I suddenly saw a reflection of my own life. It was the view; and the sounds that accompanied it.
From my vantage point high above Ilfracombe, I looked down upon the town's rooftops, glistening in late summer sunshine. In the valley, vehicles were going about their business, the sound of their engines whispering up the hillside to greet me. A car door slammed, a pneumatic drill began thumping and the breaks of a bus cried out loud. Noises being produced by invisible creators beneath the tiled roofs; and noises I associated so well with my urban childhood in London's metropolis.
Sat alone on the bench with my thoughts, a faint droning sound then caught the air. Was it a chainsaw? Or maybe a lawnmower? Whatever it was, its distant whine seemed strangely familiar. Then it came to me. The sound reminded me of my Dad's model aeroplane. In an instant my mind flew back to childhood days when the idea of "going to the countryside" meant trips to the disused Croydon Aerodrome. Here, on Sunday afternoons, Dad would contentedly fly his radio controlled model aircraft. But whilst he looked upwards, my eyes scanned sideways, amazed at the amount of grass around me.
So you can imagine how my little eyes nearly popped out of their sockets when Dad drove me and his model plane to Epsom Downs! Astounded at the foreign landscape, I began to think it wasn't just rockets that could get people to distant planets. And wasn't all this green colour around me the same as those Martians in my comic? And if so, where were they? Perhaps they were all in that spaceship over there, I thought, too frightened to come out with all these aeroplanes flying around. [The spaceship, of course, was a building I had never seen before: the grandstand. Ah! The innocence of childhood!]
Thinking back to those days as I sat on the bench, children's laughter caught the air. Some dogs then began yapping madly and the echo of ball upon racket ricocheted nearby. I assumed the sounds were rising up from Bicclescombe Park, somewhere down to my right. Being just across the road from where I live, it's a park I take for granted, quite unlike the one I discovered as a young boy, when as a family we moved out to London's suburbia. Called Nonsuch Park, it covered over 400 acres and lay on the site of a long since vanished Palace belonging to Henry VIII.
The park had everything I could have wished for. A dense wood in which to make camps; a lane with horse chestnut trees running either side, the ideal place to find conkers for those famous school playground competitions [hence it being affectionately known as "conker alley"]; an unnatural crater deep in the ground, where only the bravest of us dared to ride our bikes [less affectionately known as "devils dyke"); small thickets of trees dotted everywhere that became imaginary bases when playing soldiers; even two strange pieces of concrete road, perfectly straight with nothing at the beginning or the end, but great for sprint races. The list is endless.
The fun days of childhood became the moody days of teenage and another move, this time from suburbia into the Green Belt. Before long, adulthood loomed just around the corner. Time to leave home - but where to go? Not back to London, that was for sure, as by now I was used to life beyond the claustrophobic environment of the Big City. But I wasn't quite ready for rural life either. Not yet. Of that I was certain, having no interest in the green aspects of the Belt around me; and I wasn't particularly interested in its birds and bees either. Not that sort, anyway!
Sat on the bench reflecting back on those days, I looked down upon the streets of Ilfracombe. Here I saw another parallel with my life. Upon a hillside in the distance all the roads were heading downwards, not across, as though they were cascading streams. And in the foot of the valley below, roads were heading in that same direction to which all rivers run - the coast. The same route my own life took upon leaving home.
Illustrated by: Dean
And there, looking out from the bench, was a landmark to which all the roads in the valley seemed to be pointing - Capstone Hill. There it stood, its flag flying proudly in the strong sea breeze; just like myself who, on leaving home and moving to Sussex by the Sea, stood proudly on my own two feet. Life was great, living it to the full and having fun beside the seaside - or was it?
Looking beyond Capstone Hill, I suddenly noticed that same sea breeze was causing turbulence out at sea. Huge white horses were rearing themselves. So not all within my panoramic view was settled. And come to think of it, nor was I. Yes, life was fun, in a fashion, but something was missing.
As I watched the sea horses appear then disappear, a butterfly flew across my line of vision. I followed its course as it undulated in the wind, eventually going out of sight behind a young oak tree to my right. Either side of the tree's slim trunk, a clearing in the wood behind offered a pleasant countryside view. In the scene's foreground, a large farmhouse stood out boldly, nestled within a steep hill. On three of its sides, barns and out-houses prevented sunlight from reaching its walls. Horses grazed contentedly within the surrounding fields whilst high in the top field, sheep wandered around aimlessly, none of them daring to venture beyond the flocks huddled security. A hedgerow ran the field's ridge, whilst three distant hilltops rose up behind it. Being naturally framed by the hedgerow and the trunk and branches of the young oak nearby, two scenic pictures emerged. In one, the peaks of Little and Big Hangman were on view, whilst the other had Holdstone Down's summit looking down upon all that was around it. Cloud breaks in the afternoon sky allowed shafts of sunlight to beam down upon their slopes and create the most perfect painting for an artist's brush.
Somehow, it seemed, these pictures reflected my own life of recent years. Having moved away from the madding crowd of the city, I now prefer to live in an environment more rural than urban. Rather odd, when one considers that there is nothing rural about my upbringing; and even odder is the fact that this "boy from the city" now finds himself writing what is his twentieth "Rural Reflections" - something I would never have imagined myself doing, even five years ago. I just hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoy writing them!
Oh, and by the way, if you ever venture up to Cairn Top sometime, the bench I have been referring to is the one that has an inscription, reading: "Special Memories of Mum and Dad. The Folks Who Lived on the Hill".
Please feel free to sit there and enjoy the view.
RURAL REFLECTIONS 19
Illustration by : Paul Swailes
Spring and early summer just past have been carbon copies of those last year: April and May being both warm and dry only to be followed by a wet June. By the end of June last year, many were certain that an unsettled summer lay ahead. Such pessimists, however, were to be proven wrong as rain clouds evaporated and record temperatures were reached.
Day after day the sun would rise up and discover yet another clear sky. Then just as it had done the morning before, the sun fast began penetrating such a heat that it generated a haze that b!eached the sky and enveloped the land. By late August the landscape too had been bleached. Leaves began to crinkle whilst blades of grass withered and were drained of colour. Yes, the countryside still resembled a patchwork quilt but now it seemed as though it had been created using just beige wool.
During those hot, stifling days, wildlife instinctively sought refuge in any shelter available. Farmers moved their livestock out of fields with no shade so that only hoof prints remained in the earth as evidence that there had once been animal life within the walled hedgerows. Hoof prints that were made, of course, when the ground was softer and rain aplenty.
Yet though the weeks rolled by without a droplet falling, some areas of ground refused to dry up. It was in places such as these that hikers, walking a footpath along the edge of a field, would sink their feet very slightly into the earth beneath them, forcing water out of the ground. Unaware of these delicate puddles created by their footprints, the hikers would walk on, allowing the water to filter back into the earth where it remains.
Or does it? For hidden by the covering of dry grasses, a slender gulley lay unnoticed where the hikers had left their mark; and it is here, into this gully's shallow trough, that the water begins steadily leaking. So steadily, that a continuous dribble of water develops, a dribble that works out the camber of the field and begins trickling alongside it.
At the end of the field this trickle of water meets another from a similar gulley. The two join forces, head off downstream and soon meet another, then another and then even more. When the earth beneath them develops a sudden gradient, this once delicate dribble takes on an urgency about it. The further it descends, so the more water greets it, seeping out from its banks. Suddenly the water darts underground. When it emerges, it finds itself flowing once more at a gentle pace sheltered from the heat of the sun.
Now our gentle stream is meandering through a thick wood. Here and there its waters gently babble over rocks and twigs, only bothering to hasten its flow when nearby tree trunks narrow its banks.
For a while, the stream enjoys the pleasures of infancy and adolescence. Contentedly it flows, this way then that way. Occasionally it lightly splashes its water against its sides or laughingly gurgles to itself, acting as though it hasn't a care in the world. Too soon, however, its flow hastens once more as its landscape changes once more.
Gone is the protection of the swaying trees, replaced now by open grassland and sloping hills that rise on either side. As the river spurts on, these hills periodically descend and allow tributaries to greet it. These force its banks to ever widen. In no time it seems the flowing waters have developed into a mature river. Now running ever faster, its waters bid farewell to the days when it was once a youthful brook. Afl too suddenly adulthood has arrived.
Yet all the time it scurries on, now scrambling over large boulders or under long bridges. Was that a rail bridge or a road bridge? No time to stop, no time to ask questions. Now, the river must hurry on, so much so, it fails to notice the fall ahead as its waters go cascading downwards. With just enough time to produce a magnificent spray of mist in the air, its deluge of water re-gathers and surges on.
Another river of contemporary size soon comes to greet it. This swells its banks even further and pushes the land out so far it can barely call itself a river any more. Realizing it is reaching the twilight of its course, it finds itself within an expansive estuary. Ahead it sees the whitewash of breakwaters and its final destination.
Then with one final surge, it spews its waters out into the wide-open sea. And when the climate is right, tiny droplets of water will rise up from that sea and make themselves known in the sky. And when the wind is just right, those droplets will gently glide until they hover over the land. And when the climate is right once more, these droplets will tumble out of the sky, bounce upon the ground beneath them and then silently disappear into the earth. And then finally, like a newly born creature
that is able to find its way to its mother's milk, despite its eyes being closed, those droplets of water will instinctively find their way to the nearest sound of gently flowing water. The cycle is complete.
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 18
I once knew a lady who had great difficulty in walking through having severe arthritis and for her, just getting around her home was a major task. Naturally, going out required immense effort, something she only did on special appointments or engagements. Despite this, her loss of contact with the outside world was substituted by regular visits from local family and frequent letters from others living further away.
The letters were pages and pages long. Being presumptuous, I assumed they were full of details of foreign holidays, days out and local events. How wrong I was! She told me that the letters told her of a friend's shopping trip on market day or her niece's afternoon spent gardening. This way, she told me, she could be kept informed of how the greengrocer's mother was doing, now back at the stall after her hip replacement; and tales of the old Qualcast mower having to be dragged out from the back of the shed because the new electric one had packed up.
For those of us fortunate to be able to get out and about, such snippets no doubt seem trivial, but for this dear lady they kept her informed of aspects of life in which she herself was involved.
Her letters came to mind only the other day whilst walking with the dogs up the Score Valley. What, I wondered, would I write about if I were to send such a letter about this short, seemingly uneventful walk to an imaginary aunt? After all, a stroll up the lane hardly makes gripping reading, or does it?
My dear Auntie,
Well, it might be the start of June but when I walked the dogs this morning I still had to wear my big coat -would you believe it? There was quite a breeze blowing too. The morning air needed the warmth of the sun, that was the problem, but looking up I could only see the occasional blue hole about the sky. They seemed to be trying their best to move over towards the sun but for now the clouds were winning the day.
Just up the lane the tall sycamores were reaching up from either side of the hedgerow. How triumphant they looked, like tall cathedral pillars whose tips meet and interweave on the high ceiling above. And, just like when you enter a cathedral, my eyes had to momentarily adjust to the reduction in light caused through the abundance of the sycamore's leaves.
Ferns now shroud the high banks, the obscured light allowing their smooth, verdant leaves to be prominent. High above, the branches of the trees were full of birdsong, so varied it was hard to pick out any one tune. Amongst all their chitter-chatter, a low pitched warble began. On and on it went without the warbler seeming to take breath.
Suddenly I got a scent of garlic. Strange, I thought, as the white ramson heads that had once dominated this shady lane were now gone.
Then I noticed a tyre mark, so I think a car might have brushed up against some late flowers. Still, by bruising them a lovely garlic aroma now filled the air. So absorbed was I in discovering the source of the smell, I failed to notice the sun had come out and fearing it might soon disappear behind a cloud again, I quickened my pace to get out of the shade of the sycamores. Luck, it seemed, was on my side, seeing a good patch of blue above me. I stood there for a moment with my head tilted towards the sun, lapping up its warmth.
This, as you know, is a spot where I often stand, listening to the babbling water of the brook nearby. Of course the view of the brook is now hidden by leaves of surrounding bushes, but I still know it's there, the sound of its water tumbling over rocks. I think the little tributary has dried up as I couldn't make out the sound of my little waterfall.
The steep fields either side of the tributary are empty now, so I will have to wait until next spring to hear the sound of lambs bleating again. Today, flocks of jackdaws stand in the fields, pecking and squawking away. The gorse in the top field has gone over now, but boy did they produce some dazzling yellow bushes earlier this year!
No sooner had I looked up to the top of the gorse hills when large clouds came from behind them. Before long, the sun had gone in again and a cool breeze got up and I quickly walked on down the lane.
Here the lane is narrow again and I can only see the wood higher up, most of its trees green. Gazing across them all, i suddenly noticed a buzzard, chased by two jackdaws - I think. It swirled and swirled in an attempt to gain height and it was some time before the jackdaws finally left it alone. Happy that it would no longer be of danger to them, the jackdaws headed back whilst the buzzard soared high above me. Eventually it headed towards the Cairn and out of my sight.
As the buzzard disappeared so the sound of a rusty old saw began. I assumed it was Percy working away in his old yard nearby. Walking past, though, there was no sign of him. His old metal gate was padlocked and I could see no movement except a great tit bobbing about on some logs that were ready for chopping. Seeing me, the startled bird flew into the hedge. I did my best to look for it but it was too well camouflaged and then as I started off it began once again whistling its tune. What did it sound like? A rusty old saw going this way then that way - I'll never make a twitcher! As ever, the hedgerows alongside Percy's yard were awash with colour, eith clumps of deep pink campion and sweet little blue spots of birdseye.
A few yards on, by the old farmer's gate, the sun came out again. A bigger patch of blue this time, so j stopped to lean against the rusting gate. I'd timed it just right and was able to watch cows enter the field across the brook on the far side. Gifford stood to attention, his eyes so transfixed on the moving beasts you would have thought he'd never seen cows before! Bourton, however, just looked at him with a 'seen it, done it, worn the collar' type of glance. He was missing out on a lovely scene. Well, I think so. Picture it: buttercups and clover swaying in the field, cows crossing a brook, and a robin close by singing a melodic tune. What more could one ask for?
It reminded me, auntie, of when I used to come and stay with you as a child. Do you remember how we would stroll through the fields, me asking you what this flower was and what that insect was? I tried so hard to stump you, didn't l? You always seemed to have the answer, although I have a sneaky suspicion that if you didn't know, you would make up a name. I've looked in all the books and I can't find the 'fruit salad butterfly' or the 'blackjack spider' in any of them!
These rural reflections were then suddenly shattered as a jet plane roared frighteningly low down the valley. Its sight and sound went as fast as it came, evidence of which shown only by Bourton who was still looking in the sky for it. Even Gifford, laid back as he is, wondered what had happened. The cows, however, continued their lazy walk into the field oblivious.
Illustrated by:Paul Swailes
Peace disturbed, I walked on and was soon aware that as in previous summers, the campion and birdseye were less evident f the lane, giving way instead to wild flowers of There are always a great number of white flowers along this part of the hedgerow, but I am never sure which is which. I recognised the fading flowers of stitchwort, and cow parsley, but there were others just starting their seasonal flowering. Were they yarrow Or hogweed? Perhaps they were hemlock. I really must bring my wildflower book with me, next time.
Soon we were at the gate that leads up to the creepy old chapel. We were fortunate today to have the eeriness taken away by a couple of ducks that were waddling down the pathway. The shock of seeing us soon sent them into a quacking and flapping frenzy and within moments they were airborne, one duck tucked in behind the other. Off they flew, quacking in time to the flap of their wings. Where the chapel's boundary wall meets the lane, the most delicate and tiniest of walled flowers were appearing out of the cracks. Another one I must look up in my book! And, as always along this part of the lane, I was then greeted by the fragrant smell of meadowsweet.
As I stood and took in a deep breath, the sound of children's laughter caught the air. Seconds later, a family with three young children, evidently sharing a joke between them, appeared around the corner ahead of me. Before I could say anything, Gifford was off, the sight and sound of children meaning fun and games for him. I scarpered after him but the father called out that everything was alright - his children were used to dogs and had seen Bourton and Gifford before. Then I remembered meeting the family last year.
Fussing over, the dogs made haste knowing that around the corner was the gap in the hedge where they could get down to the stream. As usual, Bourton just lay down in it and drank his usual supply of spring water. And as usual, Gifford had a mad five minutes running upstream and then downstream, stopping only to go down on his front legs to bark at Bourton. You could see he was desperate for a game, but like he always does, Bourton just gave him back that look that said, 'I'm the sensible one, mate. I'm saving my energy for the walk back!'
Well, my dear aunt, I must go now so that this letter catches the post. Sorry I haven't told you about much goings on.
[Well! The letter may have only been about a short walk, but look what detail can be gained from it. Why not try it yourself sometime?)
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 17
If I gave you the words "motorway" and "countryside" and asked you to think up a phrase that associated them, what would yours be? "A threat to wildlife", perhaps? Or would it be "tranquility forever shattered"? Or how about "a blot on the landscape"?
Well, let's get hold of the last phrase and assume that if something is a blot on the landscape, the "blot" must have little in common with the "landscape" around it. Surely you could therefore not deny that, for instance, the sound of harmonious birdsong is in sharp conflict with that of rubber speeding upon tarmac? Or that the sight of autumnal beech trees is in stark contrast to that of summer traffic jams?
If this is the case, then let me pose you another conundrum: did our forebears back in the eighteen hundreds think the same of the engineers who gouged tons of earth out of our farmland, built viaducts that destroyed valley scenes, created embankments that blocked views and laid track upon ground where cows once grazed? If our forebears did see these engineers in this way, and I'm only assuming they did, surely they would now turn in their graves hearing us today nostalgically talking about "the golden age of steam"!
These days, of course, anything related to this era is usually seen as a compliment to the countryside in which it is set. After all, who could deny that a steam engine merrily puffing its way through a wood of bluebells acts as the final touch to an idyllic spring scene? Other forms of transport can have the same effect as well. Take the sound of a distant drone of an invisible light aircraft above a hazy summer sky. It somehow completes the rural summer setting. Then there's autumn, a season synonymous with the sights and sound of farmland machinery gathering in the crops. And how about winter? With the sun setting late in the afternoon, the inside lights of a country double-decker bus are once again visible as they twinkle in the distance; and within many a Devon valley the sound of a bus's struggling engine can often be found echoing through its hills.
Of course many buses carry passengers going to and from work, most of whom are commuting from outlying villages - villages that are themselves a fine representation of the countryside. If you think of a village, you'll no doubt associate it with rural locations and in most cases the churches, cottages and other dwellings built by man's own hand often act as the final subject of an artist's painting that completes the picture.
Without the village, the colours of the painting have no contrast. In Berrynarbor, for example, could you imagine the valley painted without its church and cottages snug tight against the hills?
These buildings, however, don't just benefit artists or the people for whom they were built, come to that. Many man-made structures benefit wildlife, too. Take the church builders of centuries ago who erected houses of worship for their local parishioners. How many of them realised that their dainty looking porches would become homes for swallows to bring up their young? Or that the engineers who constructed great piers for holidaymakers to enjoy realised that they would later become great meeting places for huge flocks of starlings? And what about the plumbers who installed outside lavatories? It is unlikely that they reckoned on them becoming ideal accommodation for nightingales to make nests in. Then there's the carpenter whose chest of drawers, no longer used for its original purpose and now tucked away in the back of the garage, has become home for a robin or a mouse. And even the D.I.Y. kings' play their part, as gaps left when putting up an out-house has become home for a little wren. And all of these made by man in the first place.
The list could go on and on: a slate wali built centuries ago to hold back earth is now residence to an abundance of flora and fauna; the invention of the telephone that led to miles and miles of cables, now acting as a resting place for birds, the ideal location to see a fine row of house martins. And finally, man's development of technology. Thanks to this I can listen to a CD of birdsong or watch a video about our summer countryside - in the middle of winter!
So perhaps not everything mankind creates necessarily works against the rural setting in which it is placed.
Illustrations by: Paul Swailes
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 16
If the course of one year could be adapted into a play about the countryside, then each season would be a new act, each month a new scene.
In my last article I reminisced about personal experiences that related to each month of the year. It was something I enjoyed doing, yet I concluded the piece by writing about the dangers of living in the past. But why? This question floated around my mind for sometime. Then a recent walk answered it.
My journey began at Willingcott, just southwest of Mortehoe, on a path that followed a route on the old railway line to llfracombe. To begin with there was little indication that I was walking where a rail service had once thrived. This lack of evidence initially saddened me and walking over a token bridge, one that allowed a campsites' roadway to pass underneath, did little to raise my spirits.
They lifted, however, as I reached the summit of my walk. For there before me stood the old Mortehoe station. Now a pleasant tourist attraction for the young, little about the building has changed since the line was closed. Carriages, track, platform canopies and much more remain, the sight of all this allowing my mind to journey back to a time when it was once a busy working station.
This was a time when excited holidaymakers would alight for Woolacombe - and when more pensive holidaymakers would alight, unsure of where they were with the station shrouded in sea mist. It was also a time when impatient llfracombe holidaymakers, overkeen to set off on the last leg of their journey, had to wait whilst the second locomotive that Was needed to pull the train up from Braunton, had to be uncoupled,
and then wait a bit longer whilst the main locomotive was replenished with water, dry from the effort of getting its passengers to the 600 foot summit.
The sight of this entire nostalgic memorabilia was in vivid contrast to the next sight I viewed, walking on a little further. For where earth had once been painstakingly dug out to create the deepest cutting along the line, earth had now once again been replaced. Only a road bridge with nothing to cross over gave a hint of what was once there before.
Cuttings, however would become a regular feature for the remainder of the walk beyond Lee Bridge. But oh, how excited the holidaymakers must have become just before the bridge as they looked down upon the thick pine woods around Lee Bay and their first glimpse of the sea! Yet it would be the last time they saw it until almost reaching Ilfracombe station. Beyond Lee Bridge evidence of the old railway line once again became scarce. The odd fragments of rusty metal or broken concrete blocks, hidden amongst wild grasses, gave faint clues. The further I walked, so the less I felt in touch with the origins of the route that I was taking. Of course, evidence of earth dug out by men and their picks was all around me. Yet treading within these deep hollows my walk began to take on a new perspective. I could hear very little, barring the occasional solitary bird song, the periodic rustle of leaves and the regular sound of water as it trickled down from the fields above.
With little else to look at, I found myself studying the flora of the banks either side of me. immediately I was struck by the contrast on both sides. The right hand bank, seemingly starved of warming sunlight, was awash with moss, bracken and ferns. Here and there, young oak trees provided a change of scenery. The left hand bank, however, was getting the full benefit of a low winter sun, allowing shrubbery to grow with gorse bushes most prolific.
Further on, the sounds of the invisible trickling water intensified and I started to hear what seemed more akin to gushing sounds. With each step I listened more intently. Then, as a small recess within the bank came into view, I caught sight of a most narrow yet forceful waterfall. Then I noticed another just beyond it; and then another further on. A delicate smile etched itself across my face. For here, along an old railway line with only me for its audience, nature was performing a unique water show.
Leaving the cascading scenes behind me, I soon realised that the water from the falls was intent on staying with me, as along either side Of the path gullies appeared. They allowed the water to flow, sometimes at a flurry, other times at a trickle. Its sight and sound became good company in an otherwise still and silent landscape.
When I did return my attention to the scenery around me, I was momentarily taken aback; for the summits of both cuttings had risen to a substantial height. So sheer was the drop on one bank that excavators had needed to build a small wall to keep the earth at bay. These summits then lowered slightly to allow a farm track to cross the line, courtesy Of a stone bridge.
Though obviously man-made, the bridge was now playing a special role in its rural surroundings, for walking out from underneath it J noticed some significant changes to the scenery. Most obvious were the juvenile trees that now lined the pathway. Less apparent was the ever-flowing water, which on one side had gradually developed into a gentle stream. Most inconspicuous of ali were the summits of the banks either side of me. Still rising steadily they were at the same time pulling away; and as I carried on something else struck me. The path was now rarely straight. More precisely, it would first veer one way, then the other. It was as though the route of the old railway line was now being determined by the course of the stream. Mother nature, it seemed, had played her part after all.
Content with this idea, I almost missed the next man-made aspect of my walk: a disused concrete hut, perhaps once utilised to house fog men who would warn trains from llfracombe that Mortehoe station was shrouded in Atlantic mists. Despite now being a blot on the landscape, the hut like the bridge before it, acted as a stage curtain to show a different rural scene beyond it. For now I began walking within a most enchanting wood. Sadly, my closest companion along the walk so far, the lovely stream, had darted behind the hut and was pulling away -m me. Its sounds, however, were replaced by wonderful birdsong high in the trees.
Illustrated by: Peter Rothwell
Then stopping on an old iron bridge that allowed another stream to flow underneath, I stood in awe: for where the bank descended sharply to meet the tributary, low winter sun was allowed to send shafts of stunning rays through the wood; here and there some of the rays flickered on the water where it babbled over rocks. The scene caused another smile to cross my face - here was yet another show stopper, written, produced and directed by nature!
Beyond the bridge the path meandered beneath an extended archway not made by man, but by nature's own trees whose branches crisscrossed above. For a short time a small bank rose up in my left side, impeding my view of the ever-developing river below. However, when the bank descended once again, I found that the flowing waters had disappeared, having dispersed into the narrow beginnings of the Upper Slade Reservoir. The further I walked the wider the reservoir became pushing the hills on the other side away from me. In contrast, the bank to my right stayed close to the pathway. Before long I realised the path was itself now cut into the hillside. Now immersed in a wide valley, I pondered on how photogenic a location this must have been from the other side of the reservoir as steam engines worked the line.
Passing a tranquil waterfall, guiding its clear fluid into the Lower Slade Reservoir, I came upon an old signal post. Like a child who joins a new school halfway through the year, the post looked alone and unable to relate to the greenery around it.
The opposite could be said of the next man-made object I came across just around the next bend. If the signal post were a school scapegoat, then this was the school bully. In the minority it might be, but amongst its natural surroundings it had taken nature on and won, literally ripping mother earth out in the process. I am, of course, referring to the two Slade tunnels. These days only one can be walked through, its partner's entrance now blocked up. But for me, these two tunnels represented much more, for standing in front of them I realised I had two choices. Either I could walk through the open tunnel and enjoy the experience in the process. What lay beyond, I would only discover once I came out the other side. Alternatively, I could build myself a mental wall that would force me to turn around and relive my journey over and over again.
The old railway line is much the same. One can either regard it as a reminder of a past golden age, using its man-made remnants as an opportunity to live in the past. Or one can see the line for what it now is: a place to enjoy the natural backdrop, developed over time since the line closed.
The choice, of course, is yours.
RURAL REFLECTIONS -15
As I go around the countryside, its sights sounds and aromas often bring back memories regardless of the time of year.
Take January. Renowned for its dull and gloomy days, the sight of clouds hanging low over the hills take me back to my first holiday in Scotland. I was quite young at the time and had little experience of English hills, let alone Scottish mountains. So when I saw a mountain whose peak was immersed in cloud, I was desperate to go up it. That way, or so I thought, I'd discover how thick and woolly clouds actually were!
Come late February, the fields that splatter our landscape have become soggy underfoot, the result of a winter's rainfall or the thawing of ice or snow. Deep underground, the sunken water finds its nearest way to a river or brook. In Devon, of course, such meandering waterways are in abundance. But as a child, I lived upon the chalky ground of the North Downs. Here, even in winter, streams were hard to find; though I do remember one little tributary, only reached by descending a steep gully and only flowing when rain had fallen over a long period. What a novelty, then, and what fun it was to play 'racing sticks' with my friend.
In March the winds increase, uprooting trees now too old and fragile to stand up against them. However, within days of their demise, new seedlings shoot out of the ground, nature's way of replenishing what has been lost. Whenever I see this, I recall the devastating effects of Dutch elm disease. As a child, I had to watch the wood where I had played being chain sawed to the ground. Then, I became mistakenly excited when the new shoots appeared. Then died.
April is a time to restart hill walks last undertaken in autumn when the days had cooled sufficiently but before it had become too cold to stand at the summit. Ascending these hills, I always think back to my days in the school cadets, and in particular an army camp in the Pennines. Why I ever chose to go, I will never know! I can hear the sergeant major now, "McCarthy, what are you doing, struggling at the back there? Get a move on! You'll never make a soldier if you can't reach the top of this molehill!"
May brings its blossom of the same name. And what an aroma! One scent of it and I am instantly taken back to the suburbs of Brighton where we lived. Circled by a nature trail that was awash with May trees, the area would be filled with the smell of May blossom.
During June the sound of grass being cut begins to continually echo throughout our land. But where fields and garden lawns are left untouched, daisies and dandelions appear, gently swaying in warm summer breezes. Just like the playing field where I spent my breaks at 27.
infant school. A place where Claire Collis, the girl I sat next to in class would contentedly make daisy chains; and the place where I picked her a bunch of dandelions, only for her to retort: "I'm not sitting next to you anymore. Picking dandelions means you are going to wet your pants!"
By July woods are at their thickest, the final destination of narrow tracks leading off from major pathways now obscured from view. But as a child, this was the time to investigate these trails in the hope of finding a clearing that could not be seen by people walking the main path. With a little adaptation and imagination, the clearing transformed itself into a secret hideaway. Any walk I now do through woods during July brings such memories flooding back.
Throughout August our public parks come into their own. Their flowerbeds are awash with colour by courtesy of geraniums, busy lizzjes, petunias, and many more. These orderly bedding plants always take me back to teenage days walking my pet golden retriever, Sheba. To get to the main park we had to walk first through the park's garden. There, as always, we would meet the park keeper, an old man who gave the impression he'd been there longer than the ancient trees surrounding him. He always had a tal t tell and, more important, always had a treat for Sheba.
Illustration by: Paul Swailes
Within our hedgerows throughout September blackberries are found in abundance. Stretching to reach that massive juicy blackberry, the one that is always just out of reach, my early childhood immediately springs to mind. Having first been brought up in a block of flats in central London, where "playing outside" meant constantly scraping my skin through falling on the concrete ground of the communal courtyard, my infant body thought it was in heaven when we moved to a house in the suburbs with a long narrow garden. Then I thought I had met an angel when our new neighbour, a dear old lady whom I came to affectionately call Auntie Ann, asked me to help her pick blackberries at the back of her garden. How proud I was when my Mum made a pie from the blackberries that I had picked.
The gusts of wind that blow throughout October carry with them swirls of fragile golden leaves. Evidence of these gusts can still be seen long after the wind's departure where leaf piles have formed. What a thrill it is to kick and trample upon the dried leaves, feeling them crackle beneath one's feet; and how it reminds me of dog walks in October through the resplendent Stanmer woods near the South Downs, kicking up leaves along the way and sending the dogs into a mad frenzy!
November: a month of nights drawing in, wildlife hibernating and the colours within our countryside fast declining. By now, bracken leaves have turned a mouldy brown colour; a sight that even today turns my stomach. It's those school cadet days again. Except this time, myself and the other four cadets in our group are completely lost somewhere within Ashdown common, and not one of us took any notice during the compass reading session. Its getting dark, I am cold, hungry and frightened and all I can see around me is ... mouldy brown bracken leaves.
Ah, December! The month when our dear robin comes into his own? The sight of his striking red breast and the sound of his sweet song cheers up the gloomiest of days. Seeing one always reminds me of the only task I would undertake in my parents' garden - the weeding. Our garden, you see, had parallel flowerbeds following the fences, which ran either side of the garden, upon which perched two robins - one on each fence. Weed on the left hand side and the robin on the left hand fence reaped the rewards. Likewise the right. But never did they dare fly across that invisible fence in the middle!
Illustration by: Debbie Rigler Cook
The robin is, of course, also associated with Christmas; and like this December article, Christmas is also a time for reflection. In doing so, we may feel both happy and sad. Happy when we recall a Christmas day full of both fun and laughter yet a memory which may also bring a tear to our eyes when we realise that some of those with whom we shared that day are no longer with us.
Nature, however, never looks back and Christmas day is no exception. Quite the opposite. When our countryside awakes on Christmas morning it notices something very subtle but still significant: it began to get light just that little earlier. News of this spreads throughout the land. And in our garden, the Christmas robin sings his song to tell us that we have turned the corner. Now the advent of Christmas is over, the advent of spring can begin.
Though nature itself may never look back, it is not necessarily a recommendation for us. Indeed, history enables us to reflect upon our past mistakes. Our memories too can bring us comfort. So maybe there's a happy medium to be struck. Whilst it is good to recall the past, particularly at this time of year, perhaps living in the past is just as unhealthy as ignoring it. So as we enter a New Year, knowing that each day will stay light a little longer, let's look forward with anticipation and excitement to the brighter days of spring. Merry Christmas. Steve McCarthy
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 14
It's early afternoon with August nearly at its close. I enter my summerhouse, pen in one hand and notebook in the other and then sit down to write my next "Rural Reflections" article. My mind, however, draws a complete blank. So I sit and wait for inspiration and wait ... and wait...
As I do so, some water droplets reflecting sunlight into the summerhouse distract my eyes. They rest delicately upon the stretched out leaves of the montbretia. Every so often the leaves bob up and down in the early autumn breeze, shifting the dappled reflection about the cabin. There are mini drops, too, upon the lawn. Watching them shimmer, a small shadow flutters over the grass; this way, then that way, it flickers until the shadow and its creator combine as one upon a deep purple hydrangea head. The shadow's creator, a cabbage white butterfly, has a moment's rest before taking to the air. Steeply it rises upwards and soon its white fluttering wings are a sharp contrast against the clear autumnal sky.
The word clear does not seem to do the sky justice. Its vivid blue colour is also in sharp contrast against the trees high up on the Cairn wood. Intensely I study their colours, knowing that soon these shades of green will be transformed to gold.
Suddenly a seagull glides across my tree-lined panorama. I follow its flight until it comes to rest, if you please, upon a nearby bungalow roof. Soon its partner joins it and together they give out their ever-familiar squawk. Yes, I know it's a din, but when you have been a city boy like me, the sound of gulls always brings to mind childhood days at the seaside.
Now there's another bird song to enjoy. In the hedge behind a robin is singing his melodic tune. As I listen my eyes gently return their gaze to the hydrangea head, and soon notice that not just the occasional butterfly but streams of them are wooed towards it, leaving all the other hydrangea heads without even a look in.
Well would you believe it? Those pair of seagulls have now contentedly perched themselves upon the roof ridge tiles and are basking in the afternoon sun - as is a red admiral butterfly, except he is sunning his. wings upon the shining p.v.c roof of my log store!
Suddenly the sun becomes hidden behind a double chocolate cloud white on the top but dark underneath. The wind suddenly gets up, making the red admiral take off at quick speed, Trying to take control, he nearly flies into my summerhouse but at the last moment the wind dies down and he is able to carry on his flight path, I follow his route past the pear tree where the gust of wind has forced a few more pears to drop to the ground. Ah well, more for the insects and birds!
Illustrated by: Debbie Rigler Cook
The cloud soon passes allowing the dazzling sunlight to return. At the same time a small garden spider appears on the path leading up to the summerhouse. It dashes one way, then stops, then dashes another way before stopping again. After almost five times of stopping and starting he finally reaches the other side of the path. Why he didn't save himself a lot of energy and go straight across the path without stopping, I will never know.
Now another sound occurs, one that makes me look automatically upwards - that of a buzzard. I feel, however, that his cry is coming from the other side of the valley and out of my sight. But for me it does not matter, for his calling sound is enough - as is the sound of the robin still singing, the bee that is humming close by, and the ducks that are quacking in the nearby park. Instinctively I find myself closing my eyes to listen to their harmonious calls. Then, before my eyes have properly shut, the local church bells begin their melodic echo up the valley. I savour the moment: it's one of those occasions when all seems well in the world.
Suddenly the feel of a wet nose on my hand disturbs my special moment it's our older black Labrador, Bourton. He is giving me that hang dog look, looking at the floor, then back at me, and so on. But I know his game. He is waiting for me to say, "Come in then and lie down". Behind him is Gifford, our younger Labrador. Now having two in this summerhouse is going to be difficult as there is not enough room! So what do I do? You've guessed it; I rearrange things to let them in. Anyway, I think that's enough of my rambling thoughts which have taken up too much of my precious time - I really must get on, if I am going to get this next article written... !
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 13
In recent articles I have written about the many property programmes that appear on television these days. Some, it seems, feature house hunters in their search for new abodes that are within the realm of our own shores; others take their home seekers further afield. Watching these programmes from a rural perspective, I am always intrigued by the latter, especially if they are seeking a property which is situated in a hot, dry climate.
Of course, there are some quite understandable reasons why people choose to either live or holiday abroad. One obvious explanation is our unpredictable and unforgiving weather. For many, the choice to either melt in Malta or be marooned in Martinhoe is an easy one to make though the chances of the latter are pretty remote, if you think about it.
However, like anything good in life, it comes with its sacrifices; and to be in an area that guarantees you hot, dry weather, the sacrifice is usually the view. Or to be more specific, the possibility of any variation in colour or contrast within that view. Worse still, a local excursion to vary the view can sometimes prove to be a fruitless exercise.
The same, however, cannot be said of the British Isles. Each country, region or indeed each county, seems able to boast some sort of rural splendour that cannot be associated with its neighbours. Obvious examples spring to mind: Yorkshire can boast the Dales, Norfolk the Broads, Worcestershire the Malverns, Derbyshire the Peak District, and there are many others.
A true appreciation of this fact can perhaps only be experienced by travelling any particular length or breadth of the British mainland, a journey I myself recently undertook when visiting family and friends.
Initially we criss-crossed the Garden of England, Kent. Here was a
county full of diversity. In places its border meets the sea at its own level, whilst at other times rises high above it, creating those most famous wartime cliffs. In places the county has a clay soil, most prolific in the great marsh at Romney. Yet where the North Downs give birth and begins its march westwards, the ground is chalky.
At Westerham we crossed into Kent's north westerly neighbour, Surrey. By now, the North Downs had risen to a formidable height, 900 feet above sea level at its peak. To the north of the Downs, the county is scattered with commons and the gentler downs such as Banstead, Epsom and Walton. At its north-eastern fringes, the Thames gently meanders through Chertsey before gathering pace as it enters the capital. To the south of the Downs the ground is more level but awash with trees; indeed, Surrey's boast is being one of the heavily wooded counties in England.
Yet Surrey's southerly neighbour is different again. Crossing the border into Sussex's unique Weald, one is aware that trees are on the decrease and the hedgerows widening. Indeed, by the time we met the
Illustrated by: Peter Rothwell
South Downs north of Brighton, the only apparent similarity between it and the North Downs is that they are both ranges of hills; for whilst the North Downs has woodland clinging to its sides, the South Downs is, in many places, bare, its forests stripped a thousand seasons past when wood or farming were the greatest needs. Likewise, there is evidence in places of long-gone hedgerows ripped up to make way to the economical needs of arable farming. Sussex, of course, sidles up against the English Channel, its coastline meeting major rivers at Rye, Newhaven, Shoreham and Littlehampton. Where the River Cuckmere flows out to sea, the shoreline rises steeply and then descends, this occurring seven times and so giving Sussex the unique coastal hills that are aptly named The Seven Sisters.
Crossing the border into Hampshire we were soon in the midst of that county's unique claim to fame: the New Forest, Here, the animal kingdom often takes priority - if a New .Forest pony wishes to stop in the middle of the road to take in the view, then man must wait. The ponies are, of course, just one aspect of the Forest's many splendid features.
Despite its name, the New Forest has large areas that are treeless. Yet heading out of Hampshire, its north-western neighbour seems stripped of them. Wiltshire's boast is its Salisbury Plain, offering the ideal location for the claustrophobic. Here, tractors plough their way across wide, open fields. Or where rape seed is allowed to grow, the panorama becomes splattered with huge yellow blotches.
To some, the Wiltshire landscape may seem harsh and unforgiving. If so, then a simple cross into neighbouring Somerset offers yet another change, to softer scenery. Soon we were amongst The Levels, where hedgerows and streams are once again more commonplace. Not that it is level for long, for not too far away are the hills of the Mendips, the Quantocks, the Blackdown Hills and, of course, Exmoor. Here and there we see smaller, isolated hilltops that are full of our ancestral past. If it's landscaped history you're after, Somerset's your county.
Then finally we crossed the border into Devon. Red soil amongst patchwork-quilt fields; rolling hills that create endless valleys, which in turn create an_abundance of streams and Moorland, woodland, the list is endless - but then when it comes to Devon, I am somewhat biased. So, too, am I biased towards our British countryside over foreign lands - as if you hadn't noticed!
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 12
In recent issues I have imagined being a bird looking for a tree in which to nest. In carrying out my search, I tried to keep it similar to the one we ourselves do when seeking a new home. Subsequently factors such as the location of lily tree, its appearance and size, plus that all important initial "wow" factor, all had to be considered. Soon enough the right tree was found but like any house move, it was not to be without complication.
When considering my tree's location, I had decided it did not matter if the tree was off the beaten track. After all, having found it, I assumed I should not be bothered about going up close to the tree. Curiosity, however, got the better of me.
The trouble was, it was not just the once that I went to look at it. Not even twice, or just three times. Far from it. I began "visiting" my tree quite often. And I still do. In fact, I have got rather attached to it! Oh don't worry, I've tried not going but it's no good; whilst being away recently I even found myself regularly checking teletext to make sure it wasn't too windy down here! So I suppose I am stuck with her now - it, I mean.
The thing is, I have started to wonder if it is the tree I am actually attached to or that other already mentioned factor... it's location. For me, the tree is situated in a lovely spot. And when I saw it back in the winter for the first time I had no idea what beauty its location had to boast come the spring.
Currently, my tree stands amongst a sea of dazzling bluebells, all rippling within the hillside's wood, as far as the eye can see. Here and there, individual campion provide spots of red whilst clumps of white stitchwort complete the grounds patriotic display. Where wild flowers have chosen not to grow, occasional ferns, holly branches and other saplings offer greener)' to the carpet bed. Finally, shades of brown cover the remaining earth, provided by the previous autumnal fall of leaves.
Evidence of recent storms can be seen where fresh branches lie, whilst lower down their decaying counterparts, who fell many seasons before, can still be made out. Close at hand proof of a more violent storm is revealed in a defeated old ash tree, evidently unable to win its battle against the storm's force and now lying at rest upon the woodland ground.
But life in the wood goes on. It's early May and few of the trees are still naked. Far from it, most are now wearing their spring wardrobe and boasting bright green leaves that have once again resurrected their trees from the cold dark days of winter. Even the fallen ash lives on, its horizontal trunk ensuring that some of its roots do a 90-degree turn into the ground.
Desperately they suck out some moisture from the soil, allowing the ash to tender its own small but invaluable offering of greenery in the wood. Late April showers stimulate the bluebells to shoot their perfumed aroma into the mid morning air. The stream nearby, softly cascading down rocks and slate, has been renewed too, the sound of its trickling water the perfect accompaniment to the "rusty saw" song of the great tit that perches on an overhanging branch.
The whole scene is completed with the appearance of the sun rising over the summit, dramatically shining beams of light through the wood and making each tree's infant leaves seem transparent.
My tree and the setting it is in seems, therefore, to have met all the criteria I laid down when I first set out to look for a tree for my imaginary bird -- with one vital exception I had crucially specified "in peaceful surroundings". Yet on the other side of the valley is a busy main road. So why was I prepared to compromise this? After all, the whole venture had started through me watching a property programme called "Location Location Location", these being the "three" factors that apparently sell a property.
I suppose this is true to some degree; but when surveying the wood in which my tree stands, I can easily disregard the noise of nearby traffic. As far as I am concerned, the wood could be next to the M25.
So whilst for my imaginary bird my tree was its home, perhaps for me it has become a room alongside many others, in a wood that acts as the house. Indeed, it was my dear father who once said, location isn't everything, for once your curtains at night you could be anywhere. The building in which you live is just as important."
So whether it is a room in your house, an area in your garden or a spot close to where you live, perhaps the important thing is to have a special place to call your own. A place where, Whether literally or in your mind, you can close your curtains to the outside world and be lost with your thoughts.
Illustrated by: Peter Rothwell
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 11
Jn my last article I wrote about being an imaginary bird, seeking a tree in which to nest. I compared my search to the one we ourselves do when moving home. In choos my ideal tree-house, I found the factors I was considering were similar. Size, type and the location of the tree all had to be contemplated.
The one essential consideration I forgot, however, was the "wow" factor. Without this, even the best properties meeting all the objective checklist requirements count for nothing; and that's because the "wow" factor isn't objective. It's one based on our feeling, an inner excitement that tells us it's the right place to live, as soon as we see it. It was a feeling that when I wrote my last article I had not yet experienced, as I wandered around the countryside looking for a tree for my imaginary bird. Soon after though, I saw it.
Walking the dogs through a local wood nestled tight upon a valley's edge, my eyes were suddenly drawn upwards towards a Beech tree. Nothing special about that, you may suppose. It was, after all, amongst many other beech and hazel trees of similar height, their sky-reaching branches creating a snug-tight canopy. But this particular beech tree was in a slight, but natural clearing, bar the odd hazel saplings close by to keep it company. Being slightly apart from its fellow trees meant one of my checklist requirements could be ticked off. Being off the main path, it was also a tree that nobody else could readily see. Another tick.
So it went on, as tick by tick the tree seemed to meet my mental checklist: well established, though not of an age to be full of holes or decay. Nor was its trunk seemingly plastered in ivy. On the contrary, the bottom half of its trunk had branches proceeding off at spacious intervals, becoming more regular where the trunk split into two. Higher up, its branches stretched out further, their offshoots becoming hands and fingers that interlocked those of its neighbours.
Yes, I thought, this tree could be the one; and as I stood there examining its detail from the pathway, I experienced again that feeling when studying the estate agent's details of what seems to be the ideal property: I wanted to investigate further.
What happened next, however, cannot be explained over the course of a few written lines. So I'll leave that for next time. Suffice to say, the sky outside is fast becoming grey and threatening and I'd like to visit my tree before the rain sets in for the day ... what was that I wrote in my last article, about not being bothered about how accessible the tree was, as I would probably only take notice of it the once?
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 10
With a number of property programmcs filling my T.V.scrcen during these winter evenings, my mind has frequently drifted back to the day I first ventured into an estate agent's office. Lunged into a chair by an over-enthusiastic young lad, shaking with excitement at the commission pound signs above my head, he launched into his ready prepared questionnaire lying neatly on the desk in front of him. In his frenzy he turned over two pages at once, completely missing the page requiring all my personal details and the bit about how much I could afford. "Now Sir, firstly the type of property. Is Sir requiring a flat, a house or a bungalow? And how many rooms? And is Sir preferring a small Mediterranean back yard or an acre of land?" Before I could answer he whipped the page over and just carried on with his questions.
"And is Sir a townie or more the rural gentleman? Village or hamlet? Or maybe completely isolated, if you prefer? Is privacy a factor? And what about noise? We have both town houses in cul-de-sacs or country cottages on busy main roads on our books, Sir. Does being far from amenities bother you?" And so he went on.
We covered what age of property I was looking for through to appearance, condition, and so on. By the end of it all, I didn't know if I was coming or going; or buying or selling come to that. In the end, I think I walked out with details of a run down penthouse suite i n the centre of town with an acre of land some ten miles away.
Now what, I'm sure you are wondering, has all this to do with reflecting rurally? Well, you see, for some weeks now I have been carrying out a similar search again as I did all those years ago except this time for a tree. Yes, that's right, a tree.
It all started when taking the dogs for a walk one morning. Ad miring the unique physical impression that every tree beholds, more so at this time of year, I thought I would try to single out one tree that, if I were a bird, I would choose to nest in and call my home. So, recalling from my mind the questions blasted at me by the young estate agent, I began to look for my tree. Firstly the type, Or species. For me, that eliminated all evergreens, as I wanted mine to strongly reflect the changing seasons. Sycamores were also out of the question, as I do not like the way they take over and make it difficult for the light to penetrate through. It would, however, need to be a common species, like an ash, oak, hazel, or beech, say. Singling Out one particular tree would then make it more special.
Next came its location. Of prime importance was the requirement that nobody else could readily see it. This meant either finding a lone tree right off the beaten track, or finding one in a wood. The latter seemed the sensible option, though I did not want my tree to be hemmed in by others around it either. Accessibility was not essential, as I would after all probably only look at it the once; and for this reason it did not matter whether it was in a nearby wood or not. But I wanted it to be in a quiet surrounding, though the sound of bird song, farm life or running water would be a bonus. Finally, carne age, appearance and size. My tree, I decided, needed to be well established though not too old and of at least 20 feet. I fancied that the branches should come off from the main trunk liberally and equally all the way round and that the trunk should be clearly visible rather than covered all over with ivy.
Specifications complete, I began my search; but as the weeks passed by, what I thought would be the simple task of finding my imaginary tree home became harder and harder. Had I been too strict with my specifications? Or was I doing something so stupid it could not happen anyway? To my latter question I soon replied "no". After all, people have a favourite plant in their garden, the one that makes them go "wow!"
Thinking this, I suddenly realised why I had not yet found my ideal tree home. It was not that my requirements were too strict, it was that I had forgotten the most important specification of all: that "wow" factor. Just like when looking for somewhere to live there are times when the property does not do anything for you when you first walk into it. So I realised it was the same situation with my tree. I had not yet seen one that made me go "wow!"
So watch this space...and in the meantime watch out also for the lengthening evenings. It is a sign that spring is on its way.
Artwork by: Dave Walden
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 9
It had been of those mornings when I wished I'd stayed in bed. First the toaster fell in love with the two slices of bread I'd placed in it; so much so, it wouldn't give me them back. Well, not until it had scorched them and set the smoke alarm off which in turn sent the dogs into a frenzy.
Deciding to comfort my empty stomach with a nice, hot cuppa, I then realised I'd run out of tea. Still grappling with the taste of coffee in my mouth first thing in the morning, I took the dogs out only to discover that my walking boots had also started a love affair, theirs being with any cold water that chose to seep inside.
Retail therapy was obviously needed though with the iron having literally run out of steam the day before, my shopping list looked more like items chosen off the conveyor belt of the Generation Game. My trip into town, however, was to be far from therapeutic, particularly when my swipe card was declined. Back home and what seemed like a hundred telephone calls later, I discovered that my wages hadn't been paid into the bank.
Now, I was angry and in serious need of some sort of therapy to relieve my stress. A look out of my lounge window didn't help as a dull, wintry day just looked back at me. "So what?" I suddenly thought, "Let's get in the car and see where we land up." With that, I headed out of town.
Reaching Mullacott Cross, I turned left so I could head along the road that runs the high ridge of llfracombe. Along the way the peaks of the Hangman Hills came into view, their outline a most wonderful foreground to the Bristol Channel and Welsh coastline beyond.
Then, driving over the peak of a slight gradient, the unforeseen venue of my drive out came clearly into view - Exmoor. It appeared chilling and haunting, its sky above grey and overwhelming. Yet dark though the rnoorland was, its landscape was intensely detailed. Hedgerows stood out boldly, as though black lines had been imprinted across the scene by an artist's pen.
The dramatic image was all the more enhanced by the threatening clouds, which in places shrouded the hilltops with thick mist. The only brightness to be made out in the scene was beyond the troughs between hills, where the distant cloud seemed lighter.
In many ways the moor looked dark and uninviting. Its dramatic scenery, however, seemed to have a magnetic pull over me. It was as if it was enticing me closer and closer.
By the time I turned off the "A" road onto some country lane near Brayford, I felt as though the cloud base was just above me.
Certainly the top of what I presumed was Castle Common had disappeared, so I knew I was going to have to be careful where I drove. And the day had definitely darkened, though for someone who had been brought up in the town and had a fear of the dark and being alone for too long, I felt amazingly secure. Exmoor, it seemed, would keep me safe and would be all the company I needed.
So without a care in the world, I began turning left here and right there, seeking out the brightest parts in the sky. [Not quite like the 'twister chasers' who seek the tornadoes in the American deserts, but similar, I suppose]. Ln places, the hedgerows stood taller than my vehicle and l, allowing bracken leaves to reach out and wave at me in the wind.
Soon, the road were undulating through lightly packed valleys where sweet little streams were never too far away. At the base of each miniature valley, an old stone bridge would greet me, allowing clear fresh waters to scamper through.
Crossing one such bridge I noticed a 'Public Footpath' sign. Curiosity getting the better of me, I luckily found close by a passing place, both deep and long enough for me to park up, knowing there was still enough space if any other vehicles met head on.
The path, running alongside the stream a short distance soon turned away from it and head steeply upwards. Walking up it, I became acutely aware of how the dull day was allowing the varying shades of the limited colours available to stand out. The hedgerows, though now devoid of spring and summer wild flowers, still had plenty to offer: the greens of the bracken and ferns, the yellows of leaves still turning and the golden browns of leaves that had completed their autumnal transformation, Each stood out luminous. Even the pale colour of withered grasses took on an unprecedented appearance.
The feeling of being at one with Exmoor's countryside was soothing. For a moment, however, I thought the roaring sound of a fighter jet would ruin my peace of mind. The nearer I got to the brow of the hill, so the louder the noise became. It was only as I reached the summit I realised that the roar was in fact that of the wind soaring through the naked branches of a large Maple tree, standing solitary in the field beside me. Though, as I studied its branches, there appeared no movement. The wind was being heard, but not seen.
From my panoramic viewpoint, I could again appreciate how the dull day really was enabling me to see in detail all that was on show. On the hillside ahead of me, a mass of gorse bushes clung to the steep sides, the deep green of their leaves making an impact on the view. The bushes could only boast a scattering of yellow flowers, yet I could easily pick each one out.
Within the hill to one side of me an old farmer's cottage nestled, painted a rather bland cream colour. Today it's outer walls stood out like a blot on the landscape. Where the field beside me sloped steeply away, a lone sheep stopped momentarily to look at me before carrying on her grazing. Even she stood out, her outline acting as a bright silhouette against the valley beyond.
Above her, a crow hovered, not through choice but as a result of its fight to fly in to the ever-increasing wind. Indeed, only the wind seemed to be making any noise at all, the setting being devoid of 'birdsong.
Maybe sound would have spoilt the setting. For once, it was not needed. The view alone, indeed all that I had seen as I drove across the moor, had been enough. So what if I hadn't done any retail therapy? And so what if I had no money? Exmoor, on a grey, gloomy day was the therapy I'd needed. And the sights it had to offer were priceless.
Illustrated by: Peter Rothwell
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 8
The other day I took my two faithful black Labradors, Bourton and Gifford, for their last walk of the day. Together, we strolled along the country lane that meanders alongside the Wilder Brook and heads up through the Score Valley. It was coming up to eight o'clock, the time we usually set off of a summer's evening - except it no longer seemed like summer, for a strong breeze was rustling through the trees, bringing with it an autumnal chill.
As they rustled, so the occasional leaf parted from its branch and glided through the air before gently landing on the ground beneath. Detail on the trees higher up on the hillsides seemed harder to make out tonight; soon, they were mere silhouettes displaying only their outlining shapes for me to see.
The sky, stripped of any bright light it may have got from a sun now set deep beyond the horizon, filled itself with grey, threatening clouds that were tipped at the bottom with a thin strip of deep pink. It seemed only a while ago when the valley was not only greeted of a morning by the sun rising over its hilltops, but was also then bid farewell by the same sun, setting so westerly it was sending deep evening rays streaming through the valley. This evening, though, eve n the hills' highest peaks were without sunlight.
Hedgerows too seemed bland, now stripped of the multitude of colours once bestowed upon them by wild flowers.
In the coming months, of course, not all the shortening evenings will seem gloomy. For soon our woodlands will be resplendent in varying shades of gold, the trees' leaves flickering in the auburn rays of autumnal sunsets. It allows us to feel that the dark days of winter are still far away; as though nature is in remission.
Before we know it, however, the weather vanes will change direction, depicting the arrival of strong winds from the east and the north. Soon, these will have stripped the trees bare, leaving no visual traces of summer.
Illustrated by: Peter Rothwell
Yet hard as the dark, cold days of winter may try to depress us by disrobing nature of all its beauty, the one thing they can't eradicate is our memories. For though the countryside may soon look bland and hostile, at least it's still there to act as a reminder of how things were.
Yes, the fields may soon seem featureless, but look hard enough and you'll remember when they were packed with buttercups and full of the sound of newly born lambs bleating away. Yes, the woods may soon seem naked, but look hard enough and you'll remember when they were covered in carpets of snowdrops and bluebells. Yes, the hedgerows may soon seem forlorn, but look hard enough and you'll remember when primroses, campion and, foxgloves made them look so merry. And yes, your garden too may soon seem unadorned but think hard enough and the memories of how lavish and ornate it was through spring and summer will fill you with warmth once again.
The cycle of life within our countryside runs a close parallel to our own lives. During the summer I sadly lost two close relatives who meant a great deal to me. Like the shorter days of winter that are approaching, I too know I have some darker days ahead of me; but I also know that the lovely memories I have of them, and how they enriched my life, will fill me with the warmth and comfort I'll need.
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 7
For many people summer is their favourite time of year. For workers returning home after a hectic day, the light evenings allow them to unwind as they view the countryside around them. Foxgloves line country lanes, leaning out from hedgerows, all vying for attention; with each one wanting their own deep pinks to be appreciated. Other roads disappear under natural tunnels of trees, their branches arching either side like a guard of honour to the commuter entering underneath. The driver's vehicle goes suddenly dark, intermittent light being offered only by a setting sun as it flickers through the dappled shade of green leaves.
Later in the season that same worker could go for a refreshing evening walk, perhaps over Exmoor to gaze at the splendour of its purple heather, or maybe to Lee to survey the hundreds of Fuchsias cascading down through the valley.
For others, however, summer is not a good time. Ironically those same late summer evenings can be unbearable if it is hot and sticky. Indeed the humidity that is guaranteed with a hot English summer can drain our countryside of its colour too. Fields and meadows are brown parched and barren.
It is this same climatic reason, which makes autumn a favourite time of year for others. Cooler days mean they can once again walk through the countryside without getting hot and sweaty; and through a countryside, which has now become an artist's paradise. For green has now given way to gold, resplendent through the woods, each tree boasting a unique shade of its own. Autumn also offers a chance to relive traditional patterns of life before the age of Supermarkets. Crab apples, blackberries and mushrooms can be Picked as we gather up food for the winter ahead. Also the sight of conkers hatching from their shells as they ricochet to the ground allows us to recall days spent in September playgrounds attempting to smash an enemy's best conker into bits.
Yet for others autumn is not so enjoyable. The seemingly-too-quick shortening days, the first cool northerly winds, strong enough to rob the trees of their first leaves all act as a reminder of dark days to come.
A rural winter, however, offers many a spectacle. It is only at this time of year that a wood of conifers can be transformed into a winter wonderland when their branches are heavily laden with snow. On other days one might look across to Exmoor and see only its peaks scantily covered, the chance to tell a child that God has sprinkled icing sugar over the hills whilst making his Christmas cake. It is also a chance to giggle at the seagulls as they take daring steps over a frozen lake and then roar with laughter when the ice suddenly snaps! Those same frosty mornings also let us admire the splendour of the deepness of a robin's red breast, standing out against the white scenery around him; even better the tree upon which he is perched is now stripped of its leaves, so bearing the colour of its bark beneath. How lovely in winter to see the varying colours like that of the silver birch bark.
Illustration by: Paul Swailes
Other trees now find themselves another use at winter: having been felled and chopped, their logs provide that unique heat that can only be experienced when burnt on an open fire; and can only be appreciated when the curtains are drawn on a wet, cold and windy night outside. Many, of course, find the dark days of winter and all the coldness and rain that goes with it their excuse for disliking winter most of all. It's as though we too are like our rural counterparts, hibernating within our dwellings and rarely seen. So whilst summer, autumn and winter have their good points, for many t se seasons also have negative aspects. Yet I defy anybody to say the same of spring: it may not necessarily be everyone's favourite time of year, but how can any negatives be found? Snowdrops give way to crocus, which in turn give way to narcissi. Soon the March winds will blow them over allowing the tulips, camellias and primroses to take centre stage; and before they have completed their final encore, May blossom trees will be in splendour, woods will be thick with bluebells and gardens will be boasting azaleas and rhododendrons. What's more, with each passing day the sun is getting a little higher, offering that extra bit of war as the weeks pass by.
Our countryside at this time of the year is like an adolescent; growing and maturing so quickly and full of energy - so if you are feeling lethargic go out there and zap some of its energy up!
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 6
For many of us the early months of the year can be our worst time. Winter, having been with us since November, now seems to hang in the air making the hot balmy days of summer seem a life-time away. Even as I write this article, a grey veil of cloud is covering the sky seeming to suffocate the countryside of the brightness and colour it needs.
Medical experts now say that it also prevents us from getting the light we need to keep our spirits high. "Seasonal adjustment disorder" they call it, or "SAD" for short. Yet it is this same seasonal adjustment that makes these early months my favourite time of year; for the season, or to be more precise the seasonal daylight, is on the increase.
On midwinter's day I climbed the Cairn nature reserve to witness the sun dipping behind a clump of trees on a hilltop near Higher Mullacott Farm. I checked my old watch face, long parted from its strap but still kept safe amongst warm tissue in my coat pocket. Its hands read ten to four. I smiled back at it, knowing tomorrow I should witness the sun setting a little later.
These subtle increases in daylight have other positive effects at this time of year. Sensing that the tide of the shortening days has turned, snowdrops and narcissi poke baby tentacles out of the ground to see if it is safe to come up. Wild garlic also push out early leaves, blowing in late winter winds to test the air's temperature and see when it will be safe to force other leaves out; then they can dramatically announce their annual arrival with pungent aromas.
Encouraged by winter sunshine, hedgerows show the slightest signs of new growth, a reminder that we shall soon once again be admiring the splendour of their primroses. Over the next few weeks, those same hedgerows will house fields for newly born lambs, skipping as they run and shaking their tails as they suck on the warmth of their mother's milk; and like us, they too will be basking in the warmth of early spring sunshine.
The trees around are also reminding us that brighter days are on the way. Already blossom can be seen on the winter flowering prunus; and if you look closely other trees are already pushing out baby buds from beneath their winter coats. SAD? Oh yes, I've definitely got SAD. That's why this is my favourite time of year; but then what suffering from is a "Spring Approaching Discovery". And the good news is it's infectious; just look at the countryside around you and you will soon catch the bug. What's more, it can make even the dullest of days at this time of year seem bright.
Illustrated by: Helen Armstead
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 5
At the top of the Cairn Nature Reserve is a wooden bench, looking down upon the houses of Lower Slade. From it you can still make out the line of the old railway, now a footpath, bending round the valley as it makes its final turn before arriving at its Ilfracombe terminus. The hillside into which it cuts is now dense wood, with sycamores dominating.
The hilltop provides me and my two black Labradors with a well-earned rest, our climb having been ascended from the steeper western side. It is here that I often sit for some time, my mind deliberating over any matters that concern me. Recently, I've been 'chewing the cud' over perhaps the biggest issue of them all: the theory of evolution. Was all that I saw around me created in just 6 or 6 trillion days? As I glanced around at all the patchwork fields, I suddenly realised that both theories agreed on one matter - that the land upon which we depend, and the animals and plants that live with it, were all here before us. That, I then concluded, makes them older than us so doesn't that make them wiser? The more I considered this, the more I realised that the notion 'the older the wiser' can be seen in abundance in the countryside around us.
Re-cycling is just one example. whereas we have only just realised its environmental benefits, nature has been doing it for years. Around us at the moment, trees are shedding their leaves, becoming compost for the ground below. More than this, nature re-cycles life itself: as a dandelion dies it metamorphoses itself into seeds that glide in the wind to ensure its species survive. Man, in the form of transplants, has only just learnt this technique.
When a dead tree falls, it provides a natural home for woodland insects - no surveyor solicitor's fees required; no consultation with the tree's branch advisor and no terms and conditions - who's the wiser of who lives there? The twigs of that same fallen tree provide the bricks and mortar for the building of a bird's new home to raise its offspring - without any planning application having to be sought!
Of course, it is man that nature depends upon when it needs help, the law of the jungle being the survival of the fittest. This I could see for myself, sitting on the top of the nature reserve, where sycamore trees are dominating proceedings, preventing light to penetrate through for smaller plants.
With this thought in my mind, I looked down at my two dogs, Bourton and Gifford, the former sat up alert, whilst the latter was laid beside him, licking Bourton i s coat as though it tasted of his favourite dog meat!
"If you were in the wild right now," I said to them, "You might not know what to do if one of you became ill; but at least you wouldn't intentionally hurt each other without reason. You're the wise ones, not man." Bourton just turned his head slightly, gave me one of his casual glances, then returned his attention to the high, circling buzzard he was concentrating on. In contrast, Gifford stood up, wagged his tail profusely and started licking my hand, not caring what I said, just pleased had paid him some attention.
With that, a cold wind suddenly took hold, so gradually we began descending back through the wood. As we walked, T. listened intently to the old trees, swaying and creaking in the wind. Just for a moment it was as though they were trying to speak to me.
"If these trees could talk," thought, "They really would have some tales to tell."
Then realised it would be more than just tales they could tell us; moreover, it would be the lessons they could teach us about the value of life itself.
Illustration by: Peter Rothwell
RURAL REFLECTIONS - 4
Whilst walking through the Score Valley one morning in August, my meandering thoughts were suddenly distracted by the sound of babbling water.
It was coming from the Wilder Brook, gently snaking its way between the hills.
It seemed strange at first that the brook's flowing echoes should catch my attention; I do, after all, walk through the valley every morning. Then I remembered waking that night to the thud of pouring rain, something I had not heard for some weeks. The downpour had seemingly swelled the brook's banks to a level that allowed me to hear once again the sound of water dashing over stones.
Not that the brook had actually dried up. It could still be seen scarcely trickling down waterfalls in Bicclescombe Park, a little further downstream. Yet thanks to this sudden cloudburst, those same falls became alive once again. The whole episode leads me to consider how my life might be without rain.
To me, a sudden downpour of rain, especially in the summer, seems to re-vitalise everything: it clears all the dust and dirt in and dirt in the atmosphere after a long, hot, dry spell; it rescues a parched flower; and it stimulates birds to whistle harmoniously, as they sing their song of thanksgiving for the freshness the rain leaves in the air.
Moreover, it stimulates all the scents that nature has to offer. With each passing dry day, a rose will turn her petals downwards as she conserves as much energy as she can. Once the rain arrives, she throws her head up majestically and releases all the fragrance she can muster in appreciation.
Nature's colours would be so bland, without rain. Just think how dull the colours of the country look after dry weather. The face of our Mother Earth becomes gaunt and pasty, her land no longer green and pleasant. Her fields look scorched, her parks look bare and our lawns look parched. Then, thank goodness, the rain arrives.
Furthermore, what is it that's so special about a shower of rain? I love walking in one in the summer, especially if I'm all hot and bothered. I find them so invigorating and the rain's usually quite warm itself In the spring time, with the chance of thunder, lightening and a few hailstones thrown in, a downpour of rain can be so dramatic. A bit like Ethel Merman singing "There's no Business like Showbusiness": it starts with no warning, can be so loud it's deafening (and like Ethel Merman, needs no microphone) and finishes as suddenly as it began.
One other thing, whilst we're on the subject of showbusiness. Where would Gene Kelley or Sacha Distelle be now, if it wasn't for rain? (Or our very own double-act, Simon and Sue, come to that).
One final benefit of rain: when united with the sun in our sky, they then proudly give birth to one of nature's finest creations - a rainbow - putting a smile on a face, whether it be young or old.
On a serious note, one can not avoid the fact that rain, of course, is like all its meteorological counterparts: whether it be sun, rain, snow or wind, they can all show us their heartless nature with devastating consequences. Only this time last year we saw the powerful effects of too much rain.
Let's hope that this autumn and winter doesn't bring with it the abundance of rain we saw last year. Then hopefully the next time you look out your window on a rainy day and feel low as a result, just hold on to the memories of what that very same rain allows you to enjoy during the spring and summer months.
Illustration by: Peter Rothwell
RURAL REFLECTIONS 3
Whilst living in Brighton I attended a creative writing evening course. At the end of the first lesson the teacher, who was rather eccentric, suddenly exclaimed: "Take heed, my dear students, if you want to become a writer, you must get in touch with your senses. So go and smell the air! Hear the sounds! And taste the wind!"
With that, she slammed shut her folders, whisked them up tight against her chest and skipped out of the room, taking long strides as she went. The motion caused her long crimson hair and full-length lilac dress to flow everywhere.
We all sat there momentarily stunned ... and concerned - is this how we would all turn out? One lady looked particularly worried: she had arrived straight from her office job and was now staring down at the smart black suit she had on. By the end of the course, would she be expected to have dyed it pink with yellow carnations sewn on? Before we had a chance to catch our breath, Ms Megasseola [that's a made-up name, straight out of a period romantic novel, I'm sure l popped her head round the doorway, "And I forgot to say ... that's your homework." With that she disappeared again.
"What's our homework?" we all queried. "Seeing the sights and tasting the wind", we presumed. "And where am I going to find the time to do that?" I quietly thought to myself.
As it happened, the next day was my day off from work and I needed to do some shopping. Getting the bus into town was fine; but road works in the town centre meant a probable long wait for my bus home. So, my retail therapy complete, I stood in the already long bus queue and got on with my "homework".
First I 'saw the sights': faces of frustration in an ever-growing bus queue, to match the line of cars with drivers' angry eyes; two metal poles sticking out of the ground, once supporting wooden slats that gave seated rest for a weary shopper; symmetrical artwork on the windows of a shop's double door, which they now call graffiti.
Next I 'heard the sounds', or in this case one sound: a recipe of car engines, shouting voices, trampling heels and pneumatic drills that, when all mixed together, concoct a lovely din.
Next I 'smelt the air': trying hard to differentiate the scent of a car's fumes and a bus's fumes. Finally, I 'tasted the wind': and almost choked!
Illustration by: Peter Rothwell
The whole experience left me quite uptight. Ironical, really, seeing as I had gone on the course to reduce some of the stress I was having at work.
Eighteen months on, however, it's a different story. Now living in Devon, I regularly stop in rural locations to get in-touch with my senses, and feel much better for it.
Only the other day, I stood on Holdstone Down and first concentrated on what I could see. A deep blue sky with cotton wool clouds casting shadows on the white horses of the Bristol Channel below. Sun shining down on the coastline of Wales, with the huge Brecon Mountains towering behind it. Then I listened intently. To the skylark above, continually singing his high-pitched song. To the sound of propellers on a light aircraft somewhere in the distance. To the wind as it rushed over the top of the grass below me. Then I took a deep breath and realised that here, even on top of Holdstone Down with no flowers around me, the grasses and branches of the forthcoming heather had a smell of their own. And what is it about coastal air? Even its taste is clean and fresh!
So go on, try it! The next time you have a worry on your mind, one that just won't leave you alone, go out and find a spot and just spend time getting in touch with your senses; because all the time you are thinking about it, you are thinking about your troubles.
Illustration by: Peter Rothwell