Tuesday 31 March 2009

Would you know a sheep if you saw one?

The Yorkshire Dales National Park is sixty years old this week and there are plans afoot to extend in so that it joins up in places with the Lake District National Park, as they are so close together. We actually live outside the National Park by two or three miles, so we have the best of both worlds - we can appreciate its scenery without all its restrictions on planning and suchlike.

Both the farmer and I are "Country People" - he has lived here all his life. Although I lived in a city for twenty years I spent all my spare time in the countryside and longed to get back there to live when I retired. But everyone is not besotted with the countryside and why should they be?

A "townie" friend came to stay for a while. We told her we would be going on country walks, so bring her walking shoes. The first time we got dressed up in our walking gear she came downstairs in two inch heels - "These are my walking shoes," she said. "The rest of my shoes have three inch heels!"

Now there has been "A survey" done and the results were published yesterday in the farmer's daily paper. There is no indication of who did the survey, where it was done, how many people were questioned, under what conditions they were questioned - so as far as I am concerned the "results" are pretty worthless. But this is what the so-called survey found:-

One third of those asked had never been into the countryside and had no desire to go there.

One in ten of those asked could not identify a sheep.

Forty-four per cent could not identify an oak tree.

Eighty-three percent did not recognise a bluebell.

Twelve per cent, when shown a photograph of a stag, thought it was a reindeer.

Now the countryside is my life - I cannot imagine ever living anywhere else now. But that does not mean I think everyone else should feel the same. I think it is quite possible that I could be shown photographs of things in the city that I could not identify. What, you may ask? Well how do I know what if I am going to be unable to identify it?

The Professor of Tourism at the University of Surrey says he feels it is quite alarming that over half the nation thinks the British Countryside is boring and feels it may be due to British people holidaying abroad so that they have forgotten what joys there are to be had in the countryside.

My feeling is that we should live and let live. If that eighty-three percent who can't recognise a blue bell when they see one are encouraged to come out into the country and find one - please oh please let them stay away from the secret bluebell wood I know. I am keeping a careful eye on the progress of those startlingly blue......well, bells.......and shall post a photograph for you to identify in due course!

Monday 30 March 2009

History made easy.

If , like me, you are one of those people who love history and love reading about the past, but get bogged down in the erudite tomes that are often hundreds of pages long, can I recommend an easy read?
Bill Bryson's "Shakespeare" has been lent to me by my friend, Glennis. It is a Harper Perennial paperback, under two hundred pages long and a jolly good read as well as being amusing. Bryson may not be very "highbrow" but his writing does carry you along with it. And I have to say that I learned a whole lot about the sixteenth century that I didn't know.
From the outset he makes it quite clear that we know very little about Shakespeare's life - he just gives us various alternative scenarios to choose from. But his writing on the background - about population numbers, illnesses and the like is spot on and very readable.
A lot of what he says we probably already know - but in my case it lay so deep in my memory that I enjoyed being reminded of it. One example is when he reminds you that in those days there was no embankment to the Thames, so that in many places it was very much wider as it flowed through the capital. And had you remembered that at that time Norwich was England's second city?
I do recommend it - it is just the book to sit with under a cherry tree in flower on the lawn - your feet up on the lounger, a drink of some sort (whisky, lemonade, tea - I care not which) in your hand and your mobile switched off. Enjoy!
PS Can I also just say thanks to everyone for the brilliant criticism of my poem - shall rewrite it in the light of your comments and then put it back on my blog later this week. I am truly inspired by the way everyone mucks in and says what they think. Blogging is brilliant!

Sunday 29 March 2009

Poetry - help, please!

The Writers' Group to which I belong meets on the first Wednesday of each Month in our local little town. The topic for Wednesday is "Wensleydale" - a bit unimaginative. I am afraid that in both Literature and Painting, Wensleydale has been "done to death." So I was feeling very uninspired and had decided that I would not make a contribution this month. Then I read about the Roman Ninth Legion. I have written this "poem" (I put the word in inverted commas advisedly, as it is in its infancy). I ask you - my bloggy friends - please cast your eye over it and if you think it is rubbish, please say so. I love poetry and I want to get better at it - I can only do that if I accept criticism - I don't have to take your advice but I would like to hear what you think of it. I shall probably call it "Wensleydale."

"Take the High Road",
he said, Petilius Cerialis.
"Take the High Road!"
And I felt
in my bones
the searing wind,
the driving rain,
the thick wet cloud
that wraps itself round
and enters your soul.

"Defeat Venutius,"
he said, Petilius Cerialis.
"Take the flat-topped hill!
Take the fort!
Destroy the Brigantes!"
And I thought
in my head
of the Tuscan hills,
of the sun
spreading its warm fingers of light
through the pine trees.

In around 70AD the Ninth Legion of the Roman Army marched along the Cam High Road and defeated Venutius and the Brigantes at Addlebrough and Bainbridge in what is now Wensleydale. The Ninth Legion was heard of no more in Roman history and became known as the legendary Lost Legion. Prisoners taken at the battle were sent as slaves to work in the lead mines of what is now Swaledale.

Saturday 28 March 2009

A Walk on the Wild Side.

Phew! The North wind doth blow - straight down off the moor and straight up our pasture. Not fit to send a dog out they say - but that holds no meaning for Tess, so off we go after lunch. She has three walks a day - morning and evening with the farmer and the farm dog - mainly rabbitting walks - and lunchtime a rather tame walk with me, sometimes down the lane on the lead and today across the fields.
Above a pair of buzzard soar and swoop on the wind - masters of the aerial manouvre they don't seem to notice the awfulness of the weather - truly wild birds that they are. We keep close in to the high hawthorn hedge, where there is a modicum of shelter. Every twenty yards or so one or a pair of blackbirds dart out as we approach; they have already laid claim to their patch of hedge and give no quarter to other blackbirds that might be prospecting for a nest-site.
This is typical March weather here. She came in like a lamb but March is set to go out like a lion. As children we used to recite a rhyme which began "January brings the snow, makes your feet and fingers glow" but I can't remember any more. Can anybody else remember it? We also used to have an old weather-lore verse along the lines of January/snow; February/fill-dyke; March/winds; April/showers; May/flowers. Does anyone remember the rest of that one?
In fact February, for the last few years, has been the driest month of the year. Here on the farm we measure rainfall and at the end of each year make a graph - and it is almost always February which is the lowest in rain.
This time of the year there are always plenty of rooks about - the sheep are still being fed and it makes easy pickings for the rooks, so every field has a few. I was watching them take to the air - when they fly into the wind they tack like sailing boats - I wonder if early boatmen learned to tack in a head wind from watching the birds?
It was a pleasure to get back home again and we took a short cut through our walled front garden. There are a lot of flowers out now - I have put some of them on today - Primula denticulata is particularly good this year; lenten roses always make a splendid show and seed easily so that they pop up all over the place; daffodils never fail to advertise that Spring is here; and, finally, good old Primula Wanda (I wonder who Wanda was - the flower must have been named after somebody) - she is always up and out before we put the clocks on.
Tonight is the night - clocks go forward one hour so it will be a bit darker in the morning and that should enable us to sleep a bit longer - we have white curtains in our bedroom and the sun has started to wake us very early.
It is the Oxford/Cambridge Boat Race tomorrow afternoon. That's another harbinger of Spring. Let's hope that the wind has eased a little by then otherwise there will be a risk of capsize again.
I think even Tess was pleased to get indoors again after being nearly blown away, She flopped down on the rug and allowed me to take her photograph!

Friday 27 March 2009


Old Yorkshire Folksong:
Beautiful Swaledale the land of rest,
Beautiful Swaledale I love thee the best,
The land it is set in a cultivate style,
The extension of Swaledale is twenty long mile.
One thing that has to be said about Swaledale is that there is never a shortage of water! The River Swale runs clean through the middle of the dale, starting up on the fells in Birk Dale, West Stones Dale and Whitsun Dale. Each of these little offshoot-dales has its own beck and they join by Wain Wath Force (Force is the Yorkshire name for a waterfall) and together become the Swale - said to be the fastest flowing river in England and capable of rising twenty feet in an hour (and it often does, cutting off villages until it has gone down again.) When it is in spate it makes a noise like an express train. It flows through the little town of Richmond (see my earlier post some weeks ago) and out into the countryside, eventually to join the Ouse and then flow into the North Sea, via the Humber Estuary. The little beck which flows through our land flows into the Swale and I am often tempted to make a little paper boat and then drive down to the mighty Humber Bridge to watch it go under (there's another project for Seth on The Altered Page!)
Once the Swale begins its journey as a "proper" river, the first bridge it goes under is in the little hamlet of Ivelet.
On Sunday the farmer and I took Tess along the banks there after first going over the steep little bridge = so steep that the road almost comes to a point on the top. Here and there was the odd primrose; in the distance we could hear the clatter of some farm machinery; nearer to hand was the calling of the lambs for their mums (Swaledale sheep, of course).
The river was in benign mood, tinkling along with here and there little becks joining in. There were dippers and a grey heron to be seen and Tess had a marvellous time sniffing at every mole hill -= of which there were plenty. Yes - when this river is gentle it makes a most inviting walk. But when it is in full spate then it is best to keep away.
You will see that I have put on a photograph of tree roots - that is an alder growing along the bank side, which becomes an alder growing in the river everytime there is a flood. Enjoy the photographs. I'll leave you with the chorus of the folk song:-
In that beautiful dale,
land of the Swale,
how well do I love thee,
how well do I love thee
Beautiful dale, land of the Swale
beautiful, beautiful dale.

Thursday 26 March 2009

News Flash!

What is it they say on the television? "We are interrupting this programme with an important announcement....." Well, I am doing just that!!
Yesterday I drove to Tesco on the Garrison at Catterick (our nearest supermarket) sandwiched between two armoured personnel=carriers and two tanks on manouvres. It was quite a journey but it set me thinking. And this is what I thought......
"Aren't we lucky to live in a country where army personnel, men in uniforms with guns, tanks, other accoutrements of war, hold absolutely no threat to us whatsoever?" I thought of the countries in Africa where there has been genocide for years; countries whi ch are oppressed by armed gangs and warring tribes; countries where there has been "ethnic cleansing."
So - I am interrupting my series of blogs on Swaledale/ Arkengarthdale and back to Swaledale, and putting on today instead:-

1. The sun is shining and the buds are bursting.
2. I am quite healthy at the moment.
3. I had a very happy first marriage.
4. I have an equally happy (but completely different) second marriage.
5. I have a loving family around me.
6. I have had a fulfilling career.
7. I have so many labour-saving devices around me that I can go off for the day whenever I feel like it and know I am not leaving household jobs undone (three cheers for the dishwasher!!!)
8. I can get into the car and drive myself wherever I want to go. When I think of my mother
during my childhood - an outing by bus to see an aunt who lived fourteen miles away entailed going on two separate buses and there and back took up the greatest part of the day. Yes, I know we knew no other life, so were happy then - but how we have "come on."
9. I live in very beautiful countryside with plenty of fresh air.
10. I can blog my way around the world.

Who could ask for more that that?

Wednesday 25 March 2009

Onward and Upward!

Continuing our Sunday journey, after looking round the old lead mine at Grinton we carried on into Swaledale to the little town of Reeth. Reeth stands at the junction of Swaledale and Arkengarthdale and is always a busy place even in Winter. There was no obvious parking place so we turned right into Arkengarthdale - a very spectacular dale and the gateway really to high country. Journeying through Arkengarthdale and going North you can quickly hop from Yorkshire Dales to Teesdale and on to Weardale and the borders - there is very little habitation up here.This is really high and wild country. We stopped for me to take a couple of photographs I have put on to day - one of the octagonal Gunpowder House. This is near to several lead mine workings. They needed gunpowder for blasting out the rock and they needed it to be kept safe and dry, so the powder house was always built well away from the mine. This one is well preserved as you can see. Quite close to the powder house is a row of what used to be lead-miners' cottages. You can see that they have now all been gentrified but they are typical of the cottages the old lead miners lived in years ago.

Soon we were in really high, wild country. There was a very strong wind blowing and getting out of the car to take a photograph was hard as you could hardly stand up! Beyond the little row of cottages there is absolutely nothing but wild moorland - you will see that it is very brown - in fact it doesn't look unlike desert. In the Summer there will be a little more green but as we are above the tree line there is nothing to break up the wild expanse. In the far distance is the A66 Trans-Pennine route through from Durham to the Lake District.

Finally we came to the Tan Hill Pub - the highest pub in England at 1732feet above sea level.Again, this pub is always busy as it is directly on the Pennine Way long distance footpath. If you are reading this Bob (The English Gardener) I am sure it is a familiar scene to you. The post in the foreground of the photograph is a snow marker, which marks the road if the snow is too deep for it to be seen. The orange vehicle is their means of transport in Winter. Over this last Winter, when there has been more snow than usual, the landlady from the pub and two friends got stuck in their snow vehicle and had to be rescued by helicopter - that is how bleak it is up here.we turned left at the pub and made our way down hill back to Swaledale and "civilisation".Tomorrow I'll show you the River Swale and one of its bridges - then we shall be back home.

Tuesday 24 March 2009

A Man-made Landscape.

I see, in a poll of favourite holiday places in the UK, conducted by the Tourist Board, North Yorkshire came first. This must be very good news this year for our huge tourist industry up here, but it does make me pleased that we live slightly off the beaten track.
On Sunday we went up into Swaledale, which starts only two or three miles from our farm and which is a very different dale from Wensleydale, much wilder, higher and in a lot of places man-made landscape.
Lead was mined up here as early as Anglo-Saxon times. If you read my post on Addlebrough and the Ninth Legion of the Roman Army you will have read about the battles with the Brigantes. Well, apparently, the prisoners that were taken at the battle were sent as slaves to work in the lead mines of Swaledale. Oh what cruelty and deprivation haunts this beautiful land of ours.
We went first to Grinton, which sits on the top of the moor that bears the name of our village. This is active grouse moor and here and there red grouse were sitting on the heather enjoying the sunshine. In the distance were plumes of smoke where they were burning off patches of heather - an essential part of grouse-moor management.
Parts of Grinton lead mine workings have been carefully preserved. To search for lead they looked for veinstones and when they found enough to suggest that there was lead-bearing ore, they would dam up the beck at its head on top of the moor and let in back up. Once there was enough water they would knock down the dam and water would gush down the stream bed, scouring the surfaces and exposing the rock. This left huge gashes in the hillsides - called hushes. Later in the week, when I put on a post about Arkengarthdale I will put on a photo of hushes. Many of them are as deep as thirty feet or more.
Then the miners would go in and dig out the lead bearing rocks. They would sort out and throw away any rocks which had no ore veins in them; then they would crush the ore bearing rocks by hand (later by machinery); wash it on racks; then it would be ready for smelting.
The photographs show the smelt mill remains at Grinton. There is also a shot of the flue - or part of it. These flues often went as far as a mile up the hillside and ended with a chimney (some chimneys still remain and are visible for miles). What they needed was a good draught for the smelting and the flue and chimney also carried away the noxious fumes - well away from where the men were working.
When the vaporised lead had condensed in the flue, small boys would be sent up with a brush and shovel to collect it.
Vast fortunes were made in the early nineteenth century but not by the miners (same old story). These men often walked four or five miles over moorland to get to their lead workings, often in bitter weather, poorly clad, from little mining cottages where the lived in squalor. Then after a hard days work regardless of weather, they would have to walk back home - and all for fourpence a day:-
Fourpence a day me lads, and very hard to work,
And never a pleasant word from the gruffy-looking turk.
But his conscience it may fail him
and his heart it may give way.
Then he'll raise our wages to ninepence a day!
In the early part of the twentieth century the bottom fell out of the market because of cheap imports (same old story) and the poverty-striken miners had to move on. Some went down the pits in Durham, some went into the mills in Lancashire and the more adventurous went to Spain
There is a record of many of them emigrating to America (can you imagine the conditions on the boats for these very poor families, who had very little). There is record of families walking from
Swale dale to Liverpool, pulling all their belongings on a sledge behind them. It is said that one poor family, who had a terrible journey to Liverpool, thought they had reached America when they got there and didn't realise that there was still a journey across the Atlantic. Many of the women and children died on the voyage. The men mostly went to the same area of the States and settled in a town which they called Richmond, after the town at the head of Swaledale
Tomorrow I will take you up into even higher country. Meanwhile let us all enjoy our comfortable life style and be grateful that we don't have to endure those awful conditions.

Monday 23 March 2009

"The Hunter of the East has caught........."

In The Times this morning (what would I do without that supplier of ideas!) Libby Purves talks about Professor Tony Briggs, who is editing a new edition of "Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam" for publication. At the same time apparently, there is an exhibition about it in Austin, Texas. This eleventh century poem has woven its way throgh my life in all kinds of circumstances, which I would like to share with you.

My father was a great poetry reader and had a quotation to fit more or less any occasion, so it is no surprise to find that he often got me out of bed in the morning with "Awake! for Morning in the Bowl of Night Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight." Two other quotations from it that he used at every opportunity - and two which almost everyone knows:-

"ajug of wine, a loaf of bread and Thou........."

"the moving finger writes and having writ,moves on......."

A very dear old Aunt of mine, Aiunt Nell, who died in the late 1950's, had a disastrous love affair during the 1914-1918 war. The family knew little about it until after she died when, amongst her most treasured and carefully wrapped possessions was found the Rubaiyat pictured above. You can see the inscription - it was a gift from her lover and she had kept it to her for the whole of her life (she never married).Years later I became a lover of all the works of the author, Ronald Blythe. In one of his books he speaks of Edward Fitzgerald, the original translator of this 11th century poem. Apparently, a friend sent Fitzgerald a beautiful 15th century manuscript copy of the Rubaiyat. Fitzgerald, who was a bit of an eccentric and a lonely man - had taught himself Persian and so made it his life's work to translate this into English. It was published in a small edition and it almost sank without trace.Then the Pre-Raphaelites found it and it became a cornerstone of their movement - crossing the Atlantic to America, where it also became popular. Libby Purves says that one of the rarest editions lies in the Titanic on the seabed off the coast of Halifax.Blythe tells the lovely story of Fitzgerald's grave in a quiet Suffolk churchyard. The then Shah of Persia decided to send roses from what is now Iran, to be planted on Fitzgerald's grave. A group gathered round the grave to await the arrival of the Shah's Ambassador in London, who was going to plant them all. After waiting for two hours they decided he wasn't coming and the Sexton heeled them all in. Shortly after this he arrived, having stopped for an "excellent lunch" on the way. Blythe says he remarked "You English - you are always so punctual!"Years ago I taught with a Science teacher who had no religious faith. He died very suddenly of pneumonia and at his funeral Rubaiyat was read in its entirety. A fitting poem for George, who had always lived life to the full - for that is what the poem is about.So now there is a new edition coming out. I have just sat here this morning and re-read my Aunt's edition. It is as fresh and new as though it were written yesterday, and I love it. I may well be tempted to buy the new edition when it comes out. In the meantime:"The bird of time has but a little way to fly........" so enjoy your day!

Sunday 22 March 2009

Building Work has begun.

I make no apology for putting this photograph of a long-tailed tit's nest on to my blog again. I took the photo a couple of years ago when a friend spotted the nest at the side of the lane as we were driving past. Fortuitously yesterday's Birdwatch column in The Yorkshire Post had an article about how the long-tailed tit builds its nest. As it takes five weeks to construct, they have started already, having chosen a thicket of brambles or a gorse bush for preference. So I was lucky to get this photograph of one in a tree where it could be seen once the leaves had fallen.

The nest is mainly built of moss and small leaves and is built from the base up. It is fastened together with silk which they steal from spiders' cocoons and the furry silk which spiders spin round their eggs. When all these ingredients meld together the effect is rather like that of Velcro!

For camouflage the tit decorates the outside of the construction with moss or lichen and then flecks it with bits of the cocoon silk, so that it blends in.

Inside the nest is lined with up to 2,600 feathers - no single feather longer than four centimetres. This is how they regulate the inside temperature. Amazingly, researchers added some feathers to a nest under construction and found that the tits incorporated these into the lining and brought less themselves to finish it.

Thinking of this fantastic construction and of my post yesterday talking about swallows returning from Africa to the site of their birth in the UK - even to the same nest -all I can say is that we certainly don't have the monopoly of cleverness in this fantastic world of ours.

Happy Mothering Sunday to all the mums out there.

Saturday 21 March 2009

Another day, another week.

Another trip to the feed merchants this morning, mainly for wild bird food. We feed our wild birds all the year round and have a super variety right outside our kitchen window. This morning there were 24 chaffinch - the males looking absolutely splendid in full breeding plumage. All the way along the lane the hedge tops had pairs of birds - yellow hammer, dunnock, blackbird, jackdaw.
It is a real Spring day today = the weather behaving exactly as it should do on the first full day of Spring. It is set to get cooler over the next few days and already, this morning, the wind has veered round to the North West, but still there is that faint haze over the land and that sense of waiting which I always feel this time of year. and that smell of rising greenery. And it is not just we humans who sense this - the birds too are feeling it - you can tell by their behaviour. As I pass by Black Plantain two blackbirds are scrapping in the middle of the road. I have to stop and blow my horn before they move. All along the ride male pheasant strut about, startlingly brilliant chests stuck out, vivid green heads up and alert for any sign of a rival.
Here and there, where there has been shelter from the wind and full sunlight, the hawthorn hedges have begun to burst forth. Where there is a bit of wild gooseberry in the hedge it is already green and almost in flower. There are faint touches of blackthorn here and there - as you will see from my photograph it is still a bit scrappy - but another warm week and it will be full out. Then we shall get some cold weather because we always get what is called a Blackthorn Winter up here. And if it is accompanied by a sharp frost or two then that puts paid to any hopes of sloe gin (or in my case, sloe vodka as I hate the taste of gin).
Primroses, those delicate, custard-coloured, most English of flowers, are out in the hedge bottoms and everywhere are the bolder daffodils. And, if you want an even stronger attack on the eyes - some gardens I pass have bushes of forsythia bursting over the wall.
Because the ten miles journey follows the course of the river, pairs of ducks, mallard or teal, fly across the road in front of me. They nest early and some will already be sitting, although - if you believe Beatrix Potter in Jemima Puddleduck, ducks are bad sitters. A few years ago a duck made a nest by the beckside just outside the gate of my cottage in the village. I have posted the photograph above - you can see how little she bothered about camouflage. She sat on fourteen eggs for about six weeks and then abandoned them as they were obviously unfertile. During that time noone saw a drake anywhere near so we came to the conclusion that she had not learned about the birds and the bees! Within one day of her deserting the nest all fourteen eggs had been eaten by something (magpie, crow, stoat, weasel?)
We do get a few teal or mallard ducklings on our beck in Spring, but sadly a lot of them disappear so that usually the mother duck ends up with only two or three babies. These she guards well as they swim up and down. We usually hear her warning quack as we pass, so get a glimpse of them.
Soon it will be time for the swallows to return. They usually arrive on the farm anywhere after about April 12 th, having completed that tremendous flight from Africa and returned to the nesting site where they were born. These fantastic birds use the same nests - hastily repaired - year after year. On the subject of swallows, in today's Times Simon Barnes reviews what sounds to be an excellent book about swallows - it is called "A Single Swallow", written by Horatio Clare. In it he follows the swallows from the southern tip of Africa back to his home in Wales. As Barnes says, "they are birds of transit yet they have the greatest fidelity to their ancestral breeding grounds." That sounds a book worth reading.
This week the farmer has finished the fence he was building to enclose the paddock. I must say he has made a jolly good job of it. Now all he has to do is to creosote it to match the existing fence higher up the field. He has bought a splended fourteen foot wooden gate to put on - it should look really good when it is all finished.
Enjoy your weekend, folks - and those of you in UK - make the most of it as icy winds are on their way back. All I can say is that if this last week was all the spring we are going to get, that is more than we had last year - and I have revelled in every single day, in every minute of warm sun on my back.
Finally - I couldn't resist showing you these fine lads - three Texels and two Suffolks - their job finished for another year, now enjoying the freedom of a meadow all on their own. Tess gave them a good barking at and they came to see what all the fuss was about.

Friday 20 March 2009

Bundles of Bundles!

I am participating in Seth Apter's "Bundles of Bundles" (see my blog list - The Altered Page). What I find so exciting about blogging is that something like this can take place around the world with just the touch of a button. Whereas young people take this sort of thing forgranted, oldies like me are blown away by how clever it all is.
So here we go - I assembled some detritus on a piece of tissue paper - an old lipstick, a key ring, a key, a paper clip, some dark red dried crab-apples, some hand-dyed blue scrim pieces - all the kind of things you might find washed up on a beach. Then I wrapped them in newspaper to make a bundle - the poet in me decided to choose the newspaper carefully - so I first wrapped it in the front of The Times which had a man in the middle of the sea in a rowing boat; Then I wrapped all over that in another piece with the heading "how to fly". Then I tied the whole lot up with string and have hung it in the rowan, where the birds perch, where they eat the coconut the farmer has strung up for them, where the wind blows through if there is the slightest breath.
Now it will sit there until the end of April, along with about a hundred other bundles around the world. I like the idea of that, so thanks Seth for inviting me to join in.
I have visions of it blowing away in the wind and getting lodged on top of a hedge somewhere - that would be great - or it might blow down and get pecked by my hens who like to scratch under the rowan - anything might happen - the important thing is that it is exposed to whatever the elements like to throw at it. If you fancy participating contact Seth - there might still be time.

Thursday 19 March 2009


It seems as a species we have always needed our symbols. I suppose, when you think about it, a symbol - if it is a good one - can take the place of a thousand words and can be displayed everywhere for all to see irrespective of language. The obvious ones spring to mind:
The Cross. The Star of David. The Swastike. The Scallop Shell. The Crescent.
All of these examples have huge meaning without putting anything into words.
About ten years ago we visited Mesa Verde National Park in the United States. We were blown overby the wonderful cliff dwellings of the Pueblo people - 600 to 1300AD, which made us realise that like here in the UK, the US has a rich history. On the walls of the cliff dwellings there were symbols aplenty and we found one of those symbols so rivetting that we had to buy a model in the museum shop. He is featured above in the photograph.
He is called Kokopelli or "the music man" and was a prominent symbol in the art of the native Americans in the four corners region of the South West. He has been a sacred symbol dating back to around 200AD and is found a lot in rock art. He seems to have a lot of meanings:-
he was a rain priest; a fertility symbol; a roving minstrel and a hunting magician, to name but four, and was a powerful symbol in Anasazi times.Shortly after I bought the statue I saw another "symbol" - that of the Navajo buffalo also in a photograph above. Although our rule is to only bring one souvenir back when we go on holiday there was no way I could leave Mesa Verde without adding this buffalo to my collection. I bought him on my credit card - and have never regretted it. The traditional Navajo patterns scratched into his surface, his beautiful shape, his colours, which match the landscape so exactly - he is a perfect example and would, of course, have been a powerful symbol in the days when the native American people relied on his meat for their survival.
I tried to think of some modern symbols - but couldn't - I hope it is just my memory playing tricks rather than a suggestion that we no longer need them.

Wednesday 18 March 2009

A Week's a Long Time in Farming.

This morning there's a waiting,
I can feel it in the air.
You can almost hear the silence;
faint mist hangs everywhere.
The hazel catkins glitter
as the sunshine melts the frost,
and blackthorn buds begin to burst.
I feel that Winter's lost.
The battle's nearly over
and Spring has almost won.
The grass has started growing and
there's power in the Sun.
Whatever else it throws at us
it's clear that Winter's past;
it's weakening by the minute
and Spring has sprung AT LAST!

What a difference this week has made on the farm. For a start the ground has dried up considerably so that you can get on it with machinery. All down the lane on my walk yesterday, farmers were busy in the fields - one was ploughing the rest of a field he began to plough in October; another was drilling corn in the portion of the field that was too wet for the Autumn sowing; another was beginning to spread the Winter's manure heap.
For the farmer it is harrowing-time; time to break up the clods of earth, smooth out the deep footprints of the Winter cattle and sheep, scarify the ground to let in the light. He tells me that his father used to talk about farmers too poor to buy set of harrows, who fixed huge thorny pieces of wood into a wooden frame and used that. I remember my father-in-law complaining that today's relatively light harrows were "not a patch" on the old cast iron ones he used to use with horses!
On the beck the first marsh-marigolds are out. They call them king-cups up here. As a child in rural Lincolnshire, we called them water-blobs. Whatever their name - they do the heart a power of good this morning, when you can actually smell the new grass.
As I photographed the farmer harrowing the well field curlew swooped overhead, their cries could be heard above the sound of the tractor. And on Mill Lane, nicely drying up, the first of this years lambs are now old enough to go with their mums down to the far field and yes - they are going on their own - these ewes know exactly where to go and can't wait - they can smell the new grass too.

Tuesday 17 March 2009

I Remember it Well........

Film buffs will remember the film - Gigi I think it was - where Maurice Chevalier and Hermione Gingold (so you know the film wasn't made yesterday!) had been lovers many years ago and then met again. They recalled a date they had had - the song was called "I Remember it Well" - and they differed on every memory

Memory has a habit of playing tricks with us. Ironically, a place which becomes prominent in the imagination is often the least substantial when it comes down to trying to remember hard facts.

So it is with Barmouth..........
It was around 1980, Boxing Day, unseasonably warm and sunny. Three of us - or was it four - made a sudden decision to drive to Barmouth for the day. After the Christmas Day feast there would have been plenty of turkey for sandwiches, Christmas cake and fruit and cheese for afters; there might even have beena bottle of wine. Anyhow - the picnic was packed and we set off.
We reached Barmouth easily because I expect everyone else was at home watching Boxing Day television. The roads were empty - we trundled along - maybe we sang carols as we went.
Barmouth beach was empty except for one man and his dog in the far distance.
The sun shone, the tide was out, the beach was sheltered. We leaned up against a rock and ate our picnic, we took off our shoes and socks and had a paddle in the sea. Then we came home.
So why, I ask my readers, does that day stand out in my memory as a Golden Day - a Special Day. Why - every Boxing Day - do I find cause to mention it and to reminisce about such an ordinary event about which I can actually remember very little - maybe only the man and dog on the beach and the paddling?
Well it does add weight to the adage that "a moment enjoyed is never wasted!"
Do you have a Golden Day Memory?

Monday 16 March 2009

There comes a time...............

There comes a time in the affairs of gardeners, when a real problem has to be confronted. Sometimes it is a rampant perennial that has taken over, shouldering its lesser bed-mates into oblivion (Michaelmas daisies spring to mind), sometimes it is ground elder that seduces the gardener with its elegant, shiny leaf and its pretty pale cream flower until one day the gardener realises that it has winkled its way in and out of the rhizomes of that clump of beautiful bearded iris. In our front garden it is couch-grass, that plant of the Northern Hemisphere that the dictionary says is "sometimes regarded as a weed." (SOMETIMES???)
My father called it twitch - the dictionary says it is also called quitch from the Anglo-Saxon cwice (there's an interesting transposition for you for a start) - oh, so the Anglo-Saxon gardener had problems with it, did he - then what hope have we got? The farmer calls it wickens.
All I can say is a rose by any other name is just as much of a problem. It is a pest; you dig it up, shake it, barrow it and then see that you have left a dozen little bits of root on the ground - don't - in a month's time it will have metamorphosed into a thatch against all comers.
Yesterday was day one of our fight against this intruder. This was the schedule of events:-

1. Remove every plant from the bed.
2. Dig out the couch grass.
3. Dig over the now empty bed.
4. Remove every tiny white worm of root you left the first time.
5. Rake the bed over.
6. See you have missed about twenty bits.
7. Pick them up by hand.
8. Rake in bone meal.
9. Shut the dog in the house because she has caught the scent of the bone meal and won't keep off the garden.
10. Go in for lunch to let the ground settle.
11. Replant the herbaceous plants you have managed to salvage
12. Talk nicely to Gertrude Jekyll, your favourite rose that has just suffered the indignity of being dug up and then replanted.
13. Cross fingers, toes and anything else crossable in the hope that you have rid at least one stretch of garden of that turbulent weed.
Not for nothing have I written that as number 13 - I give it a week before the first tiny green blade emerges from the ground.
Ah well! that's about three yards of the border done - only another thirty-three to go - it's the Michaelmas daisies next Sunday.

Sunday 15 March 2009

What has happened to beauty? - Two Haiku

Apropos my post a few days ago about the coming debate on whether or not we have lost sight of beauty - here are two haiku I have written this morning. I wrote them by a method suggested by Poet-in-Residence's haiku lifted from Shakespeare. Instead of using Shakespeare I used yesterday's Times supplement. Conveniently it had several articles around the subject of beauty. One haiku is for the motion, one against.

Our higher nature,
deprived of moral order,
exists in our dreams.

The moon and the stars
are still above our heads
tho' there's tarmac below.

Back to the gardening!

Saturday 14 March 2009

Just a quick post!

If you want to read some interesting statistics - pop over to Eclipse (see my blog list)

The Truth - as I see it.

This week in the UK has seen the publication of Julie Myerson's "The Lost Child - a True Story." It tells her version of the family break-up when she threw out her skunk-taking . (Iteenage son. The book has caused something of a furore with the son giving his version to the Daily Mail and with Julie appearing on TV and saying that she felt she had told the story as she saw it and that she was not sorry she had done it. As Kate Muir puts it in Saturday's Times, never let the truth get in the way of a good story!
James Frey also came under fire for "A Million Little Pieces" - his drugs memoir which was criticised for having too little truth in it.
This leads to the question, how important is truth in blogland? Some of the blogs which I have most enjoyed writing have been those concerning my daily walks through our lovely countryside with my Border Terrier, Tess. Do I see the walks through rose-tinted spectacles when I tell it to you? Is what I tell you a true version? Does it matter whether it is or not?
Some years ago some friends lent us a jig-saw they had been given as a present (if you are reading this, Maggie, we loved doing it). It was a jig-saw of their house and front garden. They are good and keen gardeners and their garden is always a picture. In the puzzle it was super-immaculate, not a weed, not a daisy on the lawn. (If I photograph a bit of my garden and put it on my blog, I don't show you the grotty corner where I cannot get rid of the courch-grass). But the really interesting thing about this puzzle was that the negative had been printed the wrong way round so that the whole thing was back to front, so to speak. So I suppose that strictly speaking it was not a true picture of their garden. Or was it?
Truth is an elusive thing. I walk down the lane with Tess, see the yellow hammer, the fieldfare, the little owl, the first celandine and I tell you about them. And if yesterday on my walk I saw two of my favourite Brown Hares boxing in the field, I might put that in too, although it happened on a different day. I want to tell you all the wonderful things I see on my walks. But I don't tell you about the three plastic bottles thrown from a passing car, bottles I have to pick up and bring home to put in the bin. And I don't tell you about the cowsh...... that litters the lane either side of our neighbour's farm, because they are in a hurry to spread their effluent while the weather is dry. And the stagnant pond in the corner of forty acre, where the drain is obviously blocked and the water smells awful - I leave that out as well. Should I, in the interests of "truth" tell you all this or should I not so much embroider the story as leave out the ugly bits?
This week with my 25 books I have travelled through places with Theroux, Young and Thesiger, albeit vicariously. Theroux certainly writes what he sees - the filth on the trains, the limbless beggars in India, the awful lavatories - and it is easy enough to read from the comfort of one's fireside chair. But it won't be the whole truth, will it? No, because truth, like beauty, is often in the eye of the beholder.
Thinking about it, I could in fact have invented my self on my blog - for all my readers know I could be a thirty five year old male, I could steal my (admittedly not very good.) poetry from someone else and pass it off as my own. I could have invented my whole persona (alright I admit it, the photograph on my profile is ten years old - and that is because the recent one I would like to put on I can't find (honest)). And where would truth be then? In the interests of a "good story" I suggest it would be up the creek without a paddle. Would I ever be "found out" and would it matter?
A Scientist on Radio 4 the other week suggested that the whole of life could be a hologram! Now that really freaks me out, so I shall not say anymore, except just to say that my blog is my version of my life as I see it. If you would rather have a "warts and all" version I shall have to try harder to search out the grot. So I leave you with a question - what exactly constitutes truth on a blog - and does it really matter all that much? Spend a while thinking about it!

Friday 13 March 2009

Coffee spoon anyone?

Eliot's Prufrock measured out his life in coffee spoons. I think I could measure mine out in music, paintings, people or literature. Juliet of Crafty Green Poet suggested that I chart the twenty-five pieces of literature which have really influenced me in my life. It has taken some doing but has been a real walk down memory lane. It would be interesting to do the same thing with people who have influenced me - so shall try that another time.
If we are sensible we do not go into old-age (whenever that is) without continuing to learn, question and try to grow old disgracefully (and I am wearing a purple jumper as I write, in deference to Jenny Joseph's poem!) I certainly intend to continue in that mould, so will not guarantee that the pieces I choose will not change in the years to come. But then, they are not written in stone, are they? So here they are:-

I can't remember learning to read and, apart from my Dad's poetry books, I don't remember anything but library books around the house. I don't think we had the money to buy books, but my Mother was an ardent library-goer.## We took a daily newspaper and there was always a world atlas lying around. So that is where my reading began.
The first book I actually owned was called "Claudius the Bee". It was bought for me by my brother and I treasured it for many years. It was a fictionalised account of life in the hive. So that shall be number one.
Number Two would be my much older sister's Film Annuals. She married when I was very small and as soon as I could read she passed these one to me. It was from them that I learned about the old silent film stars - Jean Harlow, Nova Pilbeam, Rudolph Valentino - I can still see the photographs of them in my mind's eye.
My father's poetry books would be at Number Three. He belonged to that age when you learned poetry off by heart at school and I grew up on a diet of "The Wreck of the Hesperus", "The Battle of Blenheim", "The Jackdaw of Rheims" and "Gray's Elegy."
4. My infant school teacher, Miss Smith, was an ardent Walter de la Mare fan. I think the first poem I ever learned was "Someone came a knocking at my wee small door."
5. At Lincoln Girls' High School I became mad about Shakespeare's plays - I can still recite large chunks off by heart - Hamlet's soliloquys, Macbeth's speeches.
6. Mrs Gaskell's "Cranford" was another favourite - and the recent TV adaptation brought the memories of it flooding back.
7. When I was a teenager, foreign travel for people like me was just a dream - but I was mad keen to get abroad. I travelled vicariously - first of all with Maurice le Toumelin in "Kurun around the world" - he sailed round the world in a ketch. I read that book a hundred times, desperate to feel some of the excitement.
8. When I moved into an urban environment after marriage I was desperate to keep my links with the countryside I loved, so I read Flora Thompson's "Lark Rise to Candleford" - I still have the copy I bought then and I still dip into it from time to time.
9. I became a keen gardener and my bible was always Vita Sackville-West's "Garden Diary".
10. I am a big believer in reading to children, even when they can read for themselves. I love to listen to books being read aloud even now. The first book I remember reading to my son was Dr. Seuss's "The Cat in the Hat Comes Back." - lovely rhyming sentences.
11. Ladybird Books were a good stand-by - his favourite (and mine) was "Lazy Little Piggly Wriggly" - I can still recite chunks and I bet he can too (Dominic - finish this verse - Lazy Little Piggly Wriggly, always stayed in bed to snore/after Mother Pig had called him?.......)
12. And then of course there was the sheer excitement (which we still both share) of the Arthur Ransome books.
13. My College and University days brought with them an inspirational English lecturer, Dave Harper, who introduced me to so much good literature. The poetry of RS Thomas was a revelation to me - and still is. At the moment my favourite poem of his is "Arrival" but no doubt it will change on my next reading.
14. The novels of F Scott Fitzgerald were another of his passions which I picked up - particularly "The Great Gatsby".
15. The metaphysical poets - in particular John Donne.
16. I did my final thesis on the plays of Edward Albee - these seem a bit old hat now - but golly I did a lot of work on them at the time, and they are still firmly ingrained in my memory.
17. Many years ago a friend bought me a copy of Shakespeare's sonnets, all written out in beautiful calligraphy - the joy of reading them and at the same time admiring the exquisite writing has made them a firm favourite still.
18. I can't remember when I discovered Evelyn Waugh's novels - but I love them still - and "Brideshead Revisited" is still my joint-favourite novel.
19. My other joint-favourite is EM Forster's "A Passage to India" - the enjoyment of that was enhanced by reading an essay by him on how he came to write it.
20. Many years ago TV did an adaptation of C.P. Snow's "Strangers and Brothers" - as a result of watching that I bought the novels, and although they are a little dated now, I still enjoy reading them.
21. I have never lost my love of travel books - although I am lucky enough to have been able to travel fairly widely over the years I still enjoy the vicarious pleasure to be had from Gavin Young's "Slow Boat to China" and Paul Theroux's "The Great Railway Bazaar" - and that all-time favourite Wilfred Thesiger's "Arabian Sands" about the empty quarter, which has fairly recently been reissued and sings just as much as it did the first time.
22 and 23 - My love of poetry, started by my Dad a long time ago, means that I could list twenty poets I love - but I will choose just two - Edward Thomas and Edwin Morgan (Heron - one of the most evocative nature poems I have ever read).
24 and 25. My love of the countryside means that my last - but by no means least - two must be nature books. I fully recommend the books of Ronald Blythe - he has such a wealth of knowledge on natural history/literature and is a past master at linking the two together. John Lister-Kaye (in particular "Nature's Child") also catches my imagination when he writes so beautifully about the wildlife he loves.

So there it is - a long post for me. Not particularly high-brow - but it represents a lifetime's love or reading.
## My mother died in 1972 - if she were doing this list, two books would dominate, and although they would never be on my list - seeing her reading them time and time again had a profound influence of my learning that reading was a joy. Those two books were Lady Eleanor Smith's "Red Wagon." and Baroness Orczy's "The Scarlet Pimpernel."

Thursday 12 March 2009

Our daily constitutional.

Tess and I set off on our daily walk immediately after lunch - it has to be then because the minute the things are in the dish-washer, Tess is waiting at the door. We set off down the lane on a mild, still afternoon - Tess on the long leash and me in my trainers as I intend to go the full two miles today!
On the lane it still looks like winter, although the weather is mild. The verges are wet and muddy, the roadside hedges have all been cut (March 1st is the last day for cutting, to give the field birds good cover for their nesting). There is a variety of birds on the tops of the hedges - mostly already paired up. We see a pair of yellow hammer, the male magnificent with his full breeding plumage, and then a pair of the unobtrusive dunnocks, grey and brown, not spectacular - I always think of them as very neat birds. Overhead there is suddenly the sound of fieldfare and redwing as a much depleted flock swoop down into the meadow in search of food. Now that all the berries have gone they find it more difficult to get food and seem to have split into smaller flocks. I notice a few red rose hips in the hedge and wonder if they are perhaps too bitter to eat - or have the birds not seen them.
There are several clumps of daffodil on the verge, all of them in bud. The clumps get bigger every year, so they must like their situation. They have been there so many years now that we get to expect them. They will be followed by cowslips and common orchids before long.
Suddenly, peeping out from behind a hawthorn bush on the side of the beck we see a violent splash of colour - the gorse is out. Gorse is the "furze" of Egdon Heath in Thomas Hardy's novels. He often speaks of the furze cutters and I ask the farmer what they would cut it for.
It is very hard and prickly and we cannot think - it certainly wouldn't be for bedding or for eating. The farmer wonders if it might be to block holes up in the hedges - it would certainly be quite impenetrable in sheep country. Does anyone out there have a better idea? It is certainly a scourge on heathland as it spreads so quickly. You often smell its musky smell long before you see it.
Further on there is a pretty clump of mauve crocus. I noticed them for the first time last year and wondered if they would come again. So often mice get the corms but, yes, here they are, opening their stamens to the weak sunlight.
When Tess and I reach forty acre wood suddenly a stoat comes out of the wood. Together we are a quiet pair and I don't think he heard us. For a moment he stops, looks at us, then continues on his course into the wood on the other side of the lane. Tess goes demented, barking, growling, straining at the leash - I am glad she is on it or she would have been after him. She may not have liked the outcome if she had caught him up for their teeth are sharp and they are vicious creatures.
Here the lane is still in its winter garb, as is the ride into forty acre - no sign of Spring at all.
On our return we stop at Red Bank to look at the milk cows. They are still inside and will not be out to pasture for at least another six weeks, but they know that Spring is coming, they can smell the grass growing and they are restless - walking about the yard. They stare at us curiously as only cows can. Tess wags her tail tentatively and they sniff at her - they are old hands with dogs.
Nearer to home we see at least a dozen fully grown rabbits - no visible babies but the fact that there are so many explains why we haven't seen the farm cats for a few days. They are adept at catching the babies, sadly, so will be sleeping off their bunny meal.
In the field next to the farm house the farmer is building a new fence while the weather is good.
We watch him for a while then go back into the house to make a cup of tea.
Then I shall try out my new yard broom I bought this morning. The farmyard broom weighs a ton and is much too unwieldy for my use. Like everything on the farm, gates, doors, fences, they are built for strength, strong farmers and great hulking animals - so I need my own. The farmer is a bit dismissive of my broom, calling it a "toy broom" just like he calls my personal hammer a "toffee hammer."
Three of the hens have found their way through the farmyard and up on to my rockery - well that'll have to stop!
If you look at Jinksy's comment you will find various uses for gorse which she has found. Thanks for that Jinksy. And while we are on the subject I neglected to mention that round here the gorse is called gorze - interestingly it seems to be half way between furze and gorse.

Wednesday 11 March 2009

Messing about with bits and pieces!

When I had gathered together a box full of bits - tulle, bubble plastic, silver thread, chiffon etc., all in shades of blue and brown, I decided to have a go at replicating a beck in the dales, as it runs over rocks.

The technique I used was to layer the fabrics, sew them down and then burn them back with a heat tool. When I had the effect I wanted, I oversewed and then touched up here and there with Treasure Gold to try and get the effect of the sun through the trees.

I am not sure how good the photograph has reproduced the effect I got - but thought it was time I put a piece of my textile art on my blog.

Tuesday 10 March 2009

Authulf's Burgh

This afternoon, driving back through Upper Wensleydale after a visit to Hawes on market day, I stopped on a country lane to photograph Addlebrough, the flat-topped hill in the photograph. It has been a glorious Spring day with, I think you will agree, a beautiful sky. When you look from a distance at this hill with its table-top, it is easy to see why - at 1564 feet - it has been a look-out post for thousands of years.

The Brigantes chief, Venutius, built a fort on the top in AD 70 in an effort to stop the advancing Roman legions. But it was in vain. The Ninth Legion, led by Periliou Cerealis, marched up from York and overtook the lot. They built a fort on the hill top in nearby Bainbridge and were then said to have their Summer camp on Addlebrough.

As with all these historic sites, there is folk lore. The devil and a giant are said to have had a stone-throwing match on the flat top. One of the stones missed and landed by the side of Semerwater - a lake I featured in an earlier post.

But now it is just a hill with a flat top, the haunt of curlew, lapwing and hare. a lovely sight on an early Spring day, when ,for me, the sky steals the glory.

Monday 9 March 2009

A Visit to the Maternity Ward.

Last week the weather was warm and Spring-like and our neighbour and friend decided to lamb out of doors - much the safer option if the weather is right. This week, when he was due to begin lambing there is a bitter wind blowing and squally showers, so it was all change at the week-end - bring the pregnant ewes into a building and create a maternity ward. This afternoon I went across to see how things were going. Lambing is in full swing.
I took some photographs as you will see; the ladies in waiting all seemed totally unconcerned about my presence, as they wandered around waiting for it to be their moment. Already some have lambed and they are penned in with straw bales and gates (some who lambed last week are already out in the field - once the lamb has had a good drink of its mothers milk it is safe for them to go out).
In the first pen were four tiny little lambs, each one the third lamb from one mother. Such lambs usually have to be bottle-fed as most mothers have only enough milk for two babies. These four tiny chaps all crowded together to greet me in case I was carrying bottles! It was hard to get a photograph but managed to take one little chap standing on his own.
Before they go out into the field they are sprayed with a number - you will see number 10 ewe and number 11 lamb - mother and baby bear the same number and then should they get hopelessly separated it is easy to reunite them.
The photograph of the lazy-looking big lamb lying asleep is of a single lamb - see how much bigger he/she is than when there are twins or triplets.
There was such a cosy atmosphere in the shed - in contrast to the biting weather outside.
Many of the ewes look ready to lamb any minute. Of course the farmer always hopes for twins.
Sheep are funny things - in a very severe winter ewes often ingest one or two foetuses so that they only produce a single lamb if the weather is bad. Nature is so clever.

Sunday 8 March 2009

Tha Armchair Traveller.

Although I manage to get "abroad" once a year - and sometimes twice - that is not the full extent of my travelling. In some respects armchair travelling is just as exciting, particularly when your guide is a past-master at taking you to the right places.

There is no better guide for me than Paul Theroux. I have been across Europe, down South America, through China with him. I have read "The Old Patagonian Express" and "The Great Railway Bazaar" at least a dozen times

Now I am settled by the fire on a bleak, typical March-lambing weekend, when the sky is blue one minute and the next minute it turns pewter grey and the wind sends sharp gritty pellets of snow battering into your face. Do I care about the weather? No, because I am reading Theroux's latest book "Ghost train to the Eastern Star", which has Theroux travelling as near as possible along a route he first took thirty three years ago.

Chapter three "The Ferry to Besiktas" has stopped me in my tracks. I have read it three times and I don't wish to go any further. I want to stay "here" and wallow in it, soak up the atmosphere. Where is "here?" We are in Istanbul, that marvellously ancient city that straddles both Europe and Asia.

I've been there once - for a week in 1986, before setting off to look at the archaeological sites of Pergamum, Didyma, Troy, Ephesus and the like. The highlight of the week in Istanbul was to set off from the Galata bridge on the ferry to Sariyer - down the Bosporus - Europe on one side and Asia on the other - that grand waterway that ends at the Black Sea. Along with standing on the Great Wall of China and boarding the Trans Siberian express it rates as one of my greatest ever experiences.

Nobody for me describes a place like Theroux. Here he is describing stepping out of the station when he reached Istanbul:-

"Istanbul is a water world, and your first view of it, stepping out of Sirkeci Station, is the pin-cushion profile of minarets on domes seeming to rise from steep dark islands, turbulent ocean all around, the Sea of Marmara to the right, the Golden Horn to the left, the Bosporus straight ahead. Walk forward, walk anywhere, and you approach water splashing at the shores of the city, which is spread across three distinct promontories. Across the Sea of Marmara, dappled with raindrops this afternoon - past the ferries and cargo ships and fishing boats, those silhouettes of battlements and villas - is the shore of Asia, the twinkling edge of the Eastern Star."

If you want to go there, do read this book. Given Turkey's appalling human rights record as far as Kurds and Armenians are concerned, it is probably the best option these days. Enjoy!

Saturday 7 March 2009

They are on their way back!!

Every Summer a variety of ground-nesting birds use our fields and the neighbouring very marshy field as nesting sites. For a couple of months there are baby birds to be found if you look carefully, then they become adolescents, then adults, then they go - one day it is as though they have never been - then you know that summer is over. But during those all too brief weeks there are various little things like bumble-bees on long legs darting about the fields, or standing still in a clump of grass pretending they are not there - my goodness how quickly they learn that skill.

Well, dear readers, I have to report that Spring must be nearly here for the ground=nesting birds are coming. Today, when I walked round the field I saw two pairs of curlew - our largest wading bird. They go mostly to estuaries or river banks in the winter but now they are pairing up and beginning to glide (if you have ever seen them, there is no other word to describe their flight in the fields) over the short grass in our meadows. They won't begin to actually lay eggs and sit until the grass is a sensible height to hide them (around April usually). In the days when we had a milking herd the farmer used to put an electric fence round any nesting curlew he found, because cows are pretty clumsy when they are ambling about the field. The call of the curlew is among the most haunting cry of any British bird - you often hear them long before you see them.

Before I reached home on my walk I had also seen a pair of Grey Par tridge - they too will hopefully nest somewhere on the farm, as will a few of the countless pheasants, although often they nest in such daft places that their eggs are taken before they hatch (crows, magpies, stoats, weasels - they all love a nice fresh egg).

There was a snipe on the beckside this morning - maybe he has a mate somewhere near and is thinking of nesting in the marshy field. Lapwing sometimes nest there too, although at present they are still milling around in flocks of about a hundred and landing in the ploughed field, all facing the same way, looking for all the world like plastic decoy birds.

In our little wood there will be mallard (the farmer thinks some of them are nesting already), coot and moorhen nests - we leave a lot of brash around in there for just that reason.

So - something is stirring, the sap is rising and it won't be long before there is the patter of tiny feet, as they say. Or, as Tennyson so aptly puts it (only slightly modified!) "In the Spring a young birds fancy lightly turns to things he has been thinking about all Winter."
(Thanks to free bird pictures for my curlew)

Friday 6 March 2009

Is it just me?

Am I swimming against the tide?
Have I got my priorities wrong?
Am I turning into a grumpy old woman? Answers on my comment page, please!

If I asked the question "Which is most important, how you look or who you are?" I would expect ninety percent at least to say that it was far more important what kind of person you were than how you looked. So why is it that the media in general - newspapers in particular - preach the opposite philosophy?
I already find watching the news on television awful. I am sure we all know by now that there is a World financial crisis, but the news bulletins tell us every night about it in as many different ways as they can, with as many different graphs and graphics as they can come up with (wonder how much some of them have cost to produce). Certainly to me most of what they say is pretty meaningless. Apparently Tony Benn met Norman Lamont at the Bath Festival this week (Lamont was one-time Chancellor of the Exchequer). When Tony asked Norman how he would fix the economy, Norman replied that he didn't know - adding 'nobody knows'. So what chance have I got of understanding it all?
But to return to newspapers. Three things I have read this week lead me to believe that media reporters (and as they reflect what the public want to read, by implication most people) think how you look is much more important.
First there was a photograph of Gordon Brown landing in Washington for his first meeting with President Obama at The White House. Was he looking out of the window at the scenery? No he was having his face made up as he sat in his seat, so that when he stood in the door of the plane he would look fresh as a daisy.
I ask you - if the Prime Minister is looking shattered after his six hour flight, during which he probably worked. If he is weighed down with worry about the Afghan war, the credit crunch, his falling ratings in the poll, etc., etc., wouldn't you wish to see that in his face when he got off the plane, rather than have it rouged and tinted like Chairman Mao in his embalmment?
Then, when Gordon Brown arrived at The White House there was consternation because his right trouser leg was caught in the top of his sock. If it had been Mrs Thatcher with her dress tucked in her knickers I could understand it (that situation is every woman's nightmare I can assure all you male readers) - but did it really merit almost a column exhorting Gordon to put his socks on before his trousers in future, so that there was no chance of it happening again.
I ask you - does it really matter all that much?
Then we have a photograph of Sarah Brown meeting The First Lady. They are sitting together at a table, chatting. What does the paper say? Firstly it says that the photograph has been taken from an unflattering angle, to make Mrs Brown look fat. I ask - do we care? Then the article goes on to say that although the Browns bought TopShop dresses with matching necklaces for the Obama children, all they got in return were two helicopters modelled on the President's helicopter as toys for their boys.
I ask - weren't we taught to say thank you for any gift we were given and that never, under any circumstances were we to question what the gift was and how it compared with what we had given the person?
As I say in the title - is it just me - or should I stop reading the papers as well as listening to the news, in order to keep my blood pressure down to normal? Answers - but not on a postcard please.

Thursday 5 March 2009

Essential Farm Jobs.

This Winter we have had a lot of snow and a fair bit of rain. Now the weather has improved somewhat it is clear that the bottom pasture is waterlogged. Naturally all our land slopes gently down to the beck and it is usually well-drained, but something has gone wrong. So today the farmer has decided to dig a few holes and find out what it is.
As he put all the drains in over the years, he knows exactly where they run - so he digs a line of holes down the field parallel to the line of alders that mark our farm boundary. The culprit is found immediately - alder roots have disturbed the pipes.
I ring him on his mobile from the kitchen to see exactly where he is and then set off with a vacuum mug that we bought years ago on the top of Pikes Peak and have never used - mid morning coffee on the hoof.
Tess comes along on the long lead for the walk (off the lead means "Stop at every rabbit hole and shout in doggy language "I know you are down there - just you wait till you show those long ears above ground!"")
The holes are quite spectacular - not dug by hand so they have appeared quite quickly. In the bottom the water is flowing fast and free, the alder roots chopped off where they interfered with the drainage.
Just above where he is working the beck falls over a pretty little rocky waterfall - there is not too much water in it at the moment. Then it reaches the point where the underground drainage system comes out into it - water is gushing out, cloudy brown water from underground, where it has been holed up for weeks. Then the beck goes on its merry way across the fields.
The sun is shining, there is a light breeze, what has been a very heavy ground frost has melted away and it feels like Spring, the water is flowing freely - all's right with the world (as long as you don't make the mistake of watching the news!) - just the holes to fill in now.