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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Time to give those boots a spring clean.

Purple crocus
Yellow crocus - my favourite spring flower

As we head towards the end of February, the countryside has definitely woken up. The snowdrops are 'full-on' at the moment and will be past their best in a week or two, crocuses are peeking through lawns and adding a splash of vibrant colour and the daffodils are just beginning to show and should be in full bloom by mid March. To most country dwellers, the main flush of daffodils marks the true beginning of Spring. At Christmas time the spring flowers were well ahead of where they should have been but some genuine cold weather (albeit without snow in Wiltshire) has held them back and they are blooming at a more traditional time.

Snowdrops in the Cotswolds

So with the spring flowers blooming and springtime rapidly approaching, it's time to get the walking boots dusted off, waterproofed and ready for action. I'm not putting my wellingtons away quite yet though!

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Countryside is GREAT

Barns and sheep pasture, Swaledale, Yorkshire Dales

Not before time the decision has been made to promote the British countryside on the world stage. There's nothing new about the fact that Britain has an incredible variety and diversity of scenery, landscape and wild places in a relatively small country - that's the point, we've always had this. Even the 'man made' landscapes date as far back as Medieval times and some, incredibly, as early as the Neolithic. Our rich history and heritage are woven inextricably into these landscapes. The countryside is a living, working environment. It is a vibrant and 'happening' place, it is not a 'theme park'. The majority of 'iconic' structures in the countryside such as the stone barns in Yorkshire and the drystone walls in the Cotswolds serve a purpose. This sense of continuity only serves to enhance the visitor experience.
Hambledon Hill, Dorset

On one occasion a few years back I was walking near Broadway in the Cotswolds with a group of visitors from North America and we happened across a lady farmer building a dry stone wall. We stopped and passed the time of day and she asked if anyone would like to place a stone. Three or four of the group did so and were uplifted to have participated in this centuries-old rural craft. After we had moved away a number of the group took the time to tell me how 'neat' it had been that we set that up, they were even more impressed when they found out that I hadn't. That's just the way the countryside is. You never know what you might happen across. The other aspect of the countryside which comes as a huge surprise to many visitors is the incredible access we have to it, with over a hundred thousand miles of footpaths and thousands of square miles of 'open access' land, protected by law.

Cotswold village scene.

In the wake of the Foot and Mouth outbreak in 2001, the true value of visitors to rural Britain was put into perspective (and came as a surprise to many)  the profile of the countryside was given a much needed boost and fragile local economies began to mend.
Blackpool Sands, South Devon
Since 2001 the world has become a different place. We have lived through the financial crisis, increased terrorism and the influence of the internet and social media has increased exponentially.
Our attention span to any one particular thing has  markedly decreased thanks to the myriad influences and images to which we are subjected every day, so the association of Britain with natural beauty has diminished at about the same rate as the awareness of London as one of the world's 'must visit' destinations has increased.

Featherbed Moss, the Pennines

Let's hope that as people from around the world become reacquainted with the fantastic range of natural beauty on offer in Great Britain they will visit, spend a while and (in an increasingly fast moving world) tap in to that unique mixture of continuity and tradition and truly relax.

In our thirty year experience, people who visit the British countryside tend to fall in love with it and rarely content themselves with one visit!

Monday, January 26, 2015

Joseph, Arthur and Alfred - an afternoon in Avalon.

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Glastonbury Abbey Ruin

Snowdrops at Glastonbury Abbey

Glastonbury Tor
Yesterday I spent an interesting and rewarding afternoon in and around Glastonbury and the Somerset Levels. This time last year the Levels were in the grip of terrible floods and many villages were only accessible by boat. This gives us a bit of a clue to the original landscape of the levels. Back in early medieval times the Somerset levels were a chain of island settlements separated by water. Those with an interest in English history will recall that when King Alfred hid in the Levels (and reputedly burned the cakes) the Danes were searching for him in boats. He was hiding on the Isle of Athelney.

The most famous of these islands in the Somerset Levels is the 'Isle of Avalon'. Many people (mistakenly) view Avalon as a fictional location because of its ties with the legends of King Arthur and the Holy Grail. Whether Arthur or the Grail existed are a matter for conjecture and debate; the existence of Avalon is fact. It just means the island of apples, no coincidence then that the land around this area is largely given over to apple orchards (not just any old apples - cider apples).

King Arthur's Grave (?)

The Lady Chapel, Glastonbury Abbey

The main part of the day was spent in Glastonbury Abbey, now a ruin. Glastonbury was one of the largest, richest and most powerful abbeys in medieval England. To put this into historic context, the abbeys were where most of the wealth of the nation resided. In medieval times wool was the most sought after commodity and the abbeys had vast tracts of land populated by huge flocks of sheep.  When Henry VIII 'dissolved' the monasteries Glastonbury was defiant and, thus, he made an example of it. The abbot was hung, drawn and quartered (with two of his monks) for treason on top of the tor and his head displayed on the west gate of the abbey. The tor is visible for miles around and is (and was) an iconic landmark. Henry's men knew how to make a point!

The earliest Christian settlement in Somerset was, reputedly, founded in AD63 by Joseph of Arimathea, reputedly the uncle of Jesus Christ. The oratory was founded on Wearyall Hill where Joseph planted his staff which flowered. The offspring of this particular tree are still to be found in Glastonbury and known as the Glastonbury Thorn. It flowers twice a year, one of those blossoming is at Christmas when the Queen receives a posy of blossom. Joseph was no stranger to the West Country as he made a number of trips to trade tin in Cornwall.

So where does Arthur fit in to all of this myth, legend and history? In 1191 the monks discovered a tomb near the high altar containing the remains of a man and woman with a cross with a Latin inscription claiming the body to be Arthur. This discovery was incredibly convenient coming, as it did, shortly after the abbey burned down. In medieval times abbeys needed pilgrims because pilgrims brought income. If you need to rebuild an abbey, money is what you need. The cynic in me finds the Arthur part of the Glastonbury legends just a little too convenient!

I would certainly recommend a visit to Glastonbury and the Somerset Levels. You may well return with more questions than answers, not necessarily a bad thing, and I bet you'll go back more than once!

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Gradual Return of Daylight

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January sunrise on Cotley Hill

Well, we're past the middle of January and there's a bit more daylight in the evening. If you live in the countryside, there are some good daily markers. In mid December our hens were all in the hen house by a quarter past four, today it's five o' clock and the stragglers are just heading in. There are plenty of snowdrops out too.

Snowdrops almost out, Norton Bavant
The songbirds also think spring is around the corner. Plenty of courtship rituals happening all over the garden and in the hedgerows. The robins have been particularly feisty and vocal. They are a very territorial little bird.

Robin Red Breast

There have been plenty of crisp mornings so far this month and plenty of wonderful walking. Such a contrast to last year's soggy winter.

Cotley Hill, Wylye Valley, Wiltshire

Morning mist clears from Sutton Veny
The returning daylight is usually the cue for me to roam further afield. Who knows what next week might bring.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

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A Sparkling End to 2014

Christmas Eve sunset from Scratchbury Hill
Happy New Year!

New Years Day is something of a damp and dreary affair here in Wiltshire, but the final fortnight of 2014 was blessed with dry, sunny weather with sharp, sparkling, frosty mornings. Perfect weather for winter walking and lovely light for photography.

The cold, frosty days have encouraged more songbirds into the garden to use the feeders and bird table, which has made for some great opportunities for photography.

Great Tit and Goldfinches

Great Tit, Goldfinch and Sparrow (in flight).
 There are plenty of waterfowl on our wetland nature reserve, Langford Lakes, run by Wiltshire Wildlife Trust. Langford Lakes is a collection of lakes with birdwatching 'hides' located around the lakeshores and plenty of easily accessible information boards. On boxing day we were lucky enough to see ; Egrets, Great Crested Grebe, Ruddy Ducks, Coot, Moorhen and Mute Swans.

Swan coming in to land

Great Crested Grebe


A year ago our part of the world was in the grip of floods, so this dry Festive Season has been a great source of relief! Here's hoping for a benign 2015!