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Often you don’t have to go very far to find Today’s treasures

Often you don’t have to go very far to find Today’s treasures

June is a delicious month, a time of strawberries, new potatoes flavoured with apple mint, and the first broad beans melting with butter.  And the gardens are alive with colours – yellow flag irises decorate ponds, azaleas brighten up patios, rhododendrons mist the hillsides with a purple haze and poppies startle you with their brilliant red blooms.

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Butterflies and damselflies flex their wings and the heady scents of honeysuckle and wild roses fill the hedgerows.  Bees are busy investigating every single foxglove flower and the buttercups dance their golden heads in the summer breeze.

The bird table is alive with hatchlings, families of blue tits and great tits vie for space on the feeders – and the swallows return from far off places, wheeling and diving across our skies.  Alas, gone are the times when the cuckoo called across our fields and the skylarks sang high above our heads – we need to go further into the wilds of Wales to hear these birds now, but we get more visitors to our bird table – goldfinches, nuthatches and great spotted woodpeckers love peanuts and sunflower seeds.

June is also the time to make elderflower champagne (not really champagne – and in fact not alcoholic at all if you drink it soon enough – but it tastes delicious).  Iced elderflower cordial is the perfect complement for summer lunches – these traditional recipes were handed down to me by two elderly aunts – handwritten on yellowing paper, now immortalised on my website:  visit www.barbararainford.co.uk/recipes

So quite often, you don’t have to go very far for Today’s Treasures, you can always find something new in your own back yard – a blackbird’s liquid notes heralding the dawn, daisies opening up their petals to the sun’s rays, a glimpse of the first wild rose, the sweetness of strawberries, or honeysuckle’s saturating scent – stimulating all our senses.  As our very own Shropshire A.E. Housman said:  “What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare?”  Take a moment to enjoy Today’s Treasures.

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Published in the June edition of the Whitchurch Gossip

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Country Wisdom and Folklore Diary

Country widsom and folklore diary

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From the Country Wisdom and Folklore Diary www.talkingtreesbooks.co.uk

I found inspiration for this website from a diary I was given at a social enterprise networking meeting held in Atcham village hall.  When visiting Avebury earlier this year, I was delighted to find a 2017 version in the Avebury village shop and was very pleased to be able to buy it – and give something back – for the motivation to start my own website – and for help with ideas for the content.

I have always been interested in our Pagan beginnings, ancient traditions and folklore,  the Druids, ancient stone circles and ley lines connecting earth energies.  In these times of fast paced living and the stresses and strains of modern day life, these diaries are full of calming ideas connecting us back to nature, recognising the beauty of trees and plants and the rituals our ancestors shared celebrating country traditions and the phases of the sun and moon.

There are some wonderful illustrations in the diaries – like the one above.

If you would like your own Country Wisdom and Folklore Diary visit www.talkingtreesbooks.co.uk

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Today’s Treasures – Stokesay Castle

Stokesay Castle: “One of the best-preserved medieval fortified manor houses in England” (according to historian Henry Summerson).

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It was built in the late 13th century by Laurence of Ludlow, a prosperous English wool merchant.  Designed as a prestigious, comfortable, but secure, home, English Heritage has preserved these medieval buildings – virtually unchanged since they were built – and kept them mainly untouched by modern furnishings.

Stokesay is mentioned in the Doomsday book and takes its name from the Old English “’stoc’ meaning a place or enclosure, or stoches, meaning cattle farm, and the Norman family name ‘Say’, the surname of the de Says family who had held the land from the beginning of the 12th century.

The castle consists of a stone hall and solar block protected by two stone towers and is surrounded by a moat, now colonised with wild flowers.  Entrance to the courtyard is via a stunning 17th century timber and plaster gatehouse next to where the café is situated.

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Standing on the staircase in this spacious hall, sheltered beneath the magnificent 13th century timbered roof, you can imagine Laurence and his family sitting at the high table at one end of the room with the rest of the household placed at tables running along the length of the hall.

Go back in time and you can envisage the fire burning in the hearth in the middle of the floor and hear the echoes of voices deep in conversation, feel the hall alive with music and busy with the comings and goings of servants fetching wine and beer from the buttery on the lower floor.

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Now the hall is cold and silent, lit by sunlight filtering through the tall Gothic windows, no fire burns in the bricked up hearth and the voices of past Sheriffs of Shropshire drinking from pewter tankards, toasting ladies in long-sleeved silk gowns are long-ago echoes of ages past.  But: “Even in its emptiness, the hall at Stokesay is one of the most evocative rooms in Englandhttp://englishbuildings.blogspot.co.uk

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published in the June edition of The Gossip magazine

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Mitchell’s Fold Stone Circle

Mitchell’s Fold Stone Circle

Mitchell’s Fold in South Shropshire is a Bronze Age stone circle dating back to 2000 BC (making it older than Stonehenge) and it lies on one of the mystical ley lines.

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We still do not fully understand why stone circles were built, but it is clear that they were ritually important for prehistoric people. Most of them have precisely aligned stones marking important lunar and solar events which became festival days like Beltane and Midsummer.

Neither do we understand ley lines – they are thought to be invisible alignments of mystical or magnetic energy areas in the Bronze and Iron Ages connecting sites like stone circles, standing stones, holy wells, hill tops and cairns.  They were forgotten in modern times but the networks of leys were accidentally preserved because many medieval churches were built on top of pagan sites.

There is also a suggestion that there is a connection between ancient sites on ley lines and extra-terrestrial craft which use them as a point of navigation – or to refuel by tapping into the energy.  Mitchell’s Fold is a location of high UFO activity with several sightings of discs and triangles over the years.

Whatever you believe, I have always had a strange feeling that ancient stones hold supernatural powers and I have to touch them to reach out to this energy.  When we visited Avebury I touched each of the stones – after all – they must have been touched by generations of people over the last two thousand years and those people must have left something of themselves in these special places all those years ago.

It was a beautiful Spring day and a lovely walk along the lane and across the heath to the stone circle; we counted the stones (we could only find 14) and then stood in the centre of the circle and admired the views east across Shropshire and west over Powys into Wales.

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As with many of these prehistoric sites, local folklore has a story to tell:  Once upon a time there was a great famine and a fairy gave the people of Mitchell’s Fold a magic cow – that would fill any container with milk.  One night an evil witch milked the cow into a sieve.  Once the cow realised the trick she disappeared, the witch was turned to stone and a circle of stones set around her so that she could not escape.

Mitchell’s Fold Stone Circle is now an English Heritage site.  There is also a Bronze Age axe factory nearby at Cwm Mawr, where distinctive axe-hammers were made from a rock type known as picrite which is found on a small hill just to the north-west of Hyssington.

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Evolution Explored, Shrewsbury

Evolution Explored, honours Charles Darwin

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Charles Darwin was born in Shrewsbury on 12th February, 1809 – if he visited his childhood town today I wonder what he would remember from his boyhood in Shrewsbury.  The river still meanders under English Bridge to the East and Welsh Bridge to the West and The Market Hall still stands in the Square, but he might be quaintly surprised that the Darwin Centre is a shopping centre and the museum is in the Music Hall – very confusing to any visitors to the town.

He might also be very interested in a unique outdoor photographic exhibition that has just arrived in Shrewsbury honouring his birthday and International Darwin Day and also commemorating the 70th anniversary of Magnum Photos – a co-operative of photographers formed in 1947. Noted for its diverse work chronicling world events and personalities, Magnum provides a living archive of people, places and discoveries reflecting our built environment, society and history that have shaped the world we live in today.

The exhibition was opened by Mike Matthews, Chairman of Shrewsbury BID with a very eloquent speech describing the range of photographs depicting a complex world of beauty, conflict, sadness, wonder, exploration, compassion and discovery and the emotions invoked by gazing at the images.

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David Hurn, one of Magnums most celebrated photographers, also spoke at the opening ceremony in St. Mary’s Church, saying how important photography is – in whatever format – and how much he hoped that the exhibition would reach out to young people and encourage their creative talents.

The photographs are displayed in two locations in the town – outside St. Mary’s Church and in The Square and are brought to Shrewsbury thanks to The Shrewsbury BID and The Hive.  Shrewsbury Business Improvement District represents over 500 businesses in the town and has been tasked with destination marketing – putting Shrewsbury on the tourist map. The Hive is a creative hub celebrating arts culture and creativity and providing funded creative projects for young people.

This exhibition is certainly unique – and definitely worth a visit – have a day out in Shrewsbury – you can get the train from Whitchurch or Wem, visit the exhibition, have lunch at one of the amazing cafes in the town, enjoy a stroll along the river and pause on Welsh bridge for a moment to think about how life has changed – and how much we have learned – since Darwin was a boy.

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Today’s Treasures – Snowdrops – Tiny Pearls of Springtime

Today’s Treasures – Snowdrops – Tiny Pearls of Springtime

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The days are getting longer and the first flowers of the year are peeping through Autumn’s fallen leaves – snowdrops – tiny pearls of springtime, creeping towards the light; frosts may wither them but their fragile stems soon revive in the sunshine, they shake their petals free of winter and their tiny white bells tremble in the spring breeze.

Snowdrop Walks mark the start of the season for many of our historic houses and there are lots of early spring walks through snowdrop-dappled woodland.  Rode Hall, just over the North Shropshire border, has a wonderful display of snowdrops set in enchanting woodland.

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The snowdrop trail begins alongside neatly manicured lawns overlooked by a picturesque combination of unusual mature trees, through formal rose gardens, heavenly scented in summer but now lying dormant waiting for the first rays of the summer sun.

Through the gap in the hedge, a whole new vista opens out and you enter a wild woodland star spangled with snowdrops roaming unchecked, under the trees, along the brook, scrambling around the shrubs and bushes that decorate the landscape, and you can find a bench, or perch on a  stone bridge, and merge with the magic of the trees, serenaded by robins and blackbirds and soothed by the sound of the stream bubbling over stones, watched by myriads of tiny snowdrop faces, studying their reflections in the water.

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Rode Hall is open from Saturday, 4th February to Sunday 5th March (except Mondays) for snowdrop escapades for all the family (including dogs – on leads).  The tearoom is open serving light lunches and you can warm up by the logburner with a welcome pot of tea and homemade cakes.  The art exhibition in the barn is well worth a visit, showcasing creations by local artists – and not all of the paintings feature snowdrops!  www.rodehall.co.uk

In the Druid calendar Snowdrops heralded Spring and first appear at Imbolc – celebrated on 31st January and 2nd February (Candlemas Day).

There are snowdrops walks all over Shropshire, including Combermere Abbey, Attingham Park, and Dudmaston Hall.

The Snowdrop Fairy

Deep sleeps the Winter
Cold, wet, and grey;
Surely all the world is dead;
Spring is far away.
Wait! the world shall waken;
It is not dead, for lo,
The Fair Maids of February
Stand in the snow!

Cicely Mary Barker

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Today’s Treasures – Whittington Castle

Today’s Treasures

WHITTINGTON CASTLE – a relic of ancient battles

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January is such a dismal month – although the days are getting longer it doesn’t feel like it and, after the expense and excitement of Christmas, with summer a distant memory, we need to cheer ourselves up, so it’s really important to focus on the good things in life and make the most of them.  My mum was always one for counting her blessings and it certainly helps on dark January days to remember that the evenings are getting lighter and spring is just around the corner.  There are some beautiful sunsets on dark winter days and when the sun does come out there’s some lovely places in Shropshire to go and feed the ducks.

Whittington Castle is just one of them.  There is free public access to the castle all year round and the ducks always give you a warm welcome, especially if you have some bread or corn with you!

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The Tea Room and the book shop are open November to February -Thursday to Sunday 10.00 am – 4.00 pm.

We spent a lovely time wandering around the castle and reading about its history.  The site was chosen in the time of King Offa because of the protection provided by the treacherous marshlands surrounding Whittington.  The original wooden castle was replaced by a Norman motte and bailey and the castle is steeped in folklore, inhabited by the ghostly spirits of ancient warriors and victims of treachery suffered within its walls.

The castle is now owned and run by the local community who organise many events during the year, the largest being a Medieval 3 day event on the May Bank Holiday weekend www.whittingtoncastle.co.uk

After exploring the castle and successfully avoiding being harassed by ghosts, we escaped to the bookshop and spent a very entertaining hour discovering several interesting fiction and non-fiction books which we perused in the tea shop over a very welcome cup of tea (and cakes!)  A very pleasant afternoon out.

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Today’s Treasures – A Day at the Beach

Today’s Treasures

A DAY AT THE BEACH

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Sometimes, our very British weather can be very surprising.  We had planned a day at the beach for ages but for one reason or another it kept being delayed until finally, it was on Halowe’en that we set off for the coast.

It was a beautiful drive through Llangollen – the sun reflecting all the autumn colours, russet reds, green, gold and amber; we stopped for a cup of coffee at Lake Bala and went a walk along the edge of the lake enjoying all the colours reflected in the water.  The sun was shining and there was hardly a breath of wind to ripple the surface of the lake.  Then we drove on through the rolling hills and watery dales of Snowdonia to Barmouth – and found the toilets!  Barmouth was unreal, the sun was so warm it felt like a hot summer’s day but, as it was nearly winter, Barmouth was pretty deserted.  The few people that were about were sitting outside café’s sipping tea and basking in the warm sunshine.

After lunch, we meandered along the beach, picking up pebbles and paddling at the edge of the waves.  Two cups of tea later, we were on our way again heading for Shell Island.  We found the car park and wandered over the sand dunes to the beach.

Last time we came here the wind was howling a gale and we had our coats zipped up to our noses.  Today, there wasn’t a breath of wind and we stripped down to T-shirts, bare arms soaking up the sun.  It was almost warm enough to sunbathe.  The waves lapped onto the beach, seagulls soared lazily above us, and the sand glistened in the sunshine.

Shoes off, we paddled through the waves, a restful, tranquil way to unwind, feeling the sand between our toes and the waves lapping around our feet.

By this time, the sun was going down and we could feel the Autumn chill creep into the air, so donning jumpers and coats again, we set off back down the beach and across the sand dunes to the welcoming warmth of the car and tea and biscuits.

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Today’s Treasure – Boscobel House

Boscobel House, Shropshire

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For my birthday this year we purchased joint (senior!) membership of English Heritage.  One of the first places we chose to visit was Boscobel House in Shropshire – where Charles II famously hid in an oak tree after his defeat at the battle of Worcester in 1651.

You can visit an oak tree that grew from an acorn from that very famous Royal Oak tree.  You can also see the priest’s hole in Boscobel House where Charles II subsequently hid.

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It was a beautiful sunny autumn day.  We declined the guided tour and meandered through the house and gardens on our own, through hazel avenues and around lavender and box formal flowerbeds.  The house has some wonderful old beams and floorboards and there are magnificent views over the surrounding countryside.  The dairy is very well equipped with ancient equipment, milk pails, enamel jugs, wooden butter churns, memories of a by-gone age when everything was painstakingly done by hand.

By this time, we had worked up quite an appetite so, before embarking on the 20 minute walk to White Ladies Priory (which actually took our ambling gait well over half an hour!), we decided to treat ourselves to a late breakfast.  The café is installed in the old stable block and we enjoyed delicious real bacon sandwiches and a proper cup of tea in china cups, poured from a china teapot.

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Thus fortified, we set off the find the priory.  The path goes along the edge of the fields alongside the road so we made a mental note to walk back on the easier terrain of the tarmac.  The priory must have been magnificent in its time (built in the 12th century).  As you can see from the pictures some impressive archways of the church remain – after the suppression of the monasteries most of the convent buildings were taken down.  We imaged the nuns (Augustinian canonesses who wore habits of undyed cloth) at morning prayers, growing herbs, peacefully tending the gardens and watching the sun set on the Shropshire/Staffordshire border.

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Rose Hip Syrup

 

Rose Hip Syrup

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The recipes I have found for rose hip syrup suggest 2 lb (1 kg) of rose hips but they are really hard to pick so I decided to try with 1 lb and found this provides 4 small (275g) bottles which is probably more than enough.

Any sort of rose hips will do but I used all wild rose hips.  Cultivated roses have bigger rose hips.

1 lb (500g) rose hips, minced (I chopped them in batches using the chopper/grinder device with my mixer).
3 pints (1.8 litres)  boiling water
300g granulated sugar

Mince rose hips then put immediately into boiling water.  Bring to the boil again then remove from the pan and leave for at least  15 minutes.  Strain through a jelly bag/muslin/linen  (I used an old cotton pillow slip placed in a sieve over a bowl).  Leave to allow most of the juice to drip through.  (I left overnight ‘cos I was too tired to finish it off after dinner.)

Because rose hips have fine hairs that are a serious irritant, you need to strain again to make absolutely sure you have removed them all.  So strain again through a double piece of muslin or pillow slip folded over in a sieve.

Measure the rose hip juice into a large saucepan and for every 500 ml add approx. 300g of sugar.

Heat slowly, stirring until the sugar has dissolved, then bring to the boil and boil for 3 minutes.  Pour into warm sterilised bottles* and seal and label.

Use within 4 months and refrigerate once opened.

*To sterilise bottles and tops, wash in warm soapy water and rinse well, then put on a tray in a low oven (120°C Gas ½) to dry out and heat up.

Rose Hip Syrup has a unique taste – described as ‘warm, floral and fruity’ on the River Cottage website.  I quite liked it poured neat onto ice cubes – like a liqueur.  It’s also good with lemonade and it’s very high in vitamin C – ideal for keeping winter coughs and colds away – and as a hot toddy diluted with hot water.  During the war – when there were no oranges – children were given rose hip syrup from the Ministry of Health and even after the war, as a child, my mother gave me a teaspoonful of neat rosehip syrup every day.

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