Today’s Treasures – The Giant’s Causeway

Today’s Treasures

The Giant’s Causeway

When I was just a little girl – I saw a picture in an atlas of a magical place called the Giant’s Causeway – and ever since that day I wanted to go there.  It took me nearly 60 years, but I finally stood on those hexagonal tablets of basalt and watched the waves washing over them – and they were just as magical as they first appeared to me in that picture book.

I don’t think I really believed that these hexagonal rocks existed – until I actually stood on them – and what I never anticipated was the waves crashing over them – surreal – all the people, clambering over the rocks – like lego bricks fitting together perfectly.  The sun was setting as we left and I kept looking back over my shoulder at this magnificent landscape, remembering the last glimpses of this magical place – and the Irish legend that tells how it was made.

Once upon a time there was a mythical hunter-warrior called Fionn mac Cumhaill who grew angry with the Scottish Giant Benandonner because he kept attacking Ireland – so Fionn grabbed chunks of the Antrim coast and threw them into the sea forming a path so he could follow Benandonner and teach him a lesson. But Benandonner was so huge and terrifying that Fionn ran back home, closely followed by the giant.  Our Irish hero was saved by his quick-thinking wife who disguised Fionn as a baby.  When the angry Scot saw the baby, he stopped in his tracks, frightened of how big the baby’s father might be – and he fled back to Scotland, destroying the causeway behind him so Fionn could not follow.  So Ireland was saved – but Fionn’s causeway remains – and across the sea there are identical columns (part of the same volcanic lava flow) at Fingal’s Cave on the isle of Staffa in Scotland.

 

The Giant’s Causeway is Northern Ireland’s first UNESCO Heritage Site.  The 40,000 basalt stone columns were made by volcanic eruptions 60 million years ago.  It is the most visited National Trust site.

 

 

Published in the May edition of the Whitchurch Gossip

Today’s Treasures – Spring is Just Around the Corner

Today’s Treasures – Winter is over and Spring has just begun

The celandines are sunning their golden faces, coltsfoot flowers are lifting their heads and opening their petals to the wintry sunshine and the frogs have finally woken up in the pond.  The dawn chorus is back – the liquid notes of the blackbird serenading the sunrise, soon joined by all the other birds waking up and flexing their wings – they feast on the seeds on the bird table then they are off making nests, flying to and fro with beaks full of moss.

The robin has inspected the bird boxes – and investigated the apple tree – and now seems to have settled on building his nest in the Pampas grass – whilst the blackbird has made a big song and dance about building in the hedge – and finally decided on the ivy climbing over the weigela.

If we didn’t have so many cold, wet, windy, dismal, days in winter – we wouldn’t look forward quite so much to spring.  It’s such a relief when the first snowdrops poke their heads through the frozen ground – then the primroses and hyacinths brighten up the winter borders, closely followed by the daffodils – crowds of them, fluttering and dancing in the breeze – as Wordsworth so aptly described them.

The cherry blossom is out in candyfloss clouds of pink and the first tiny crimson buds are showing on the apple blossom.  Bees have woken up from their winter sleep and are busily investigating the spring flowers.

The scent of the first new mown grass is full of the promise of hot sunny lazy summer days full of sunshine.

Winter is over and spring has just begun …

 

 

Published in the April edition of the Whitchurch Gossip

 

Today’s Treasures – A murmuration of Starlings

Today’s Treasures – Starlings – swooping and swirling, twisting and twirling

I thought I would have to drive to Minsmere to experience the magic of a murmuration – imagine my surprise to find that there is a starling roost near Threapwood, just north of Whitchurch. We arrived just before dusk, excited with anticipation – would the starlings be there?  To begin with there were small flocks in the distance but then they gathered together and flew overhead.  It was an incredible, inspiring, breath-taking experience – spiritual even – I gasped as thousands of starlings filled the sky above me, the sound of their flapping wings an awesome, out of this world, experience.

Weaving never-ending patterns, under and over, creating myriad designs in the darkening sky.  Shifting and swirling, whispering and chattering, weaving in waves, under and over, all around the sound of fluttering wings.

Whirling and twirling, twisting and turning, up and over, around and swooping down, finally coming to roost, chittering and chattering, flittering and flapping, in the trees all around.

So, you don’t have to travel far to experience the magic of a murmuration – there are currently thousands of starlings resident in a wood near you.  Get there just before dusk and you will see them, gradually gathering together into flocks, then they paint their patterns across the sky, as the daylight fades and twilight falls sending shadows around the setting sun, the starlings swirl and twirl and paint shimmering living patterns – a constantly changing kaleidoscope across the sky.

Photographs by Logan Rainford

Published in the March edition of the Whitchurch Gossip

Today’s Treasure – Croft Ambrey Hillfort

TODAY’S TREASURE:  CROFT AMBREY HILLFORT

Croft Ambrey, comprises a hillfort, a Romano-Celtic temple and a medieval warren; it was excavated between 1960 and 1966 and found to have been in use from the 6th century BC up to AD 48 by a population of 500-900 people.  Finds included weapons, bone and antler artifacts, hammer stones and Iron Age pottery.

As well as the rampart banks and ditches there is a series of mounds which are the remains of a medieval rabbit warren constructed for the breeding and management of rabbits or hares which provided fresh meat and skins.

The Romano-Celtic temple was built over two phases and excavation found the remains of fire pits and stake holes.  Its purpose was to house treasures to revere the gods and serve the spiritual needs of the community.  Communal gatherings took place outside.

From the top there are extensive views over the Herefordshire countryside and it’s easy to see why it was an excellent place for a settlement.  There are many ancient trees – oak, beech and yew – that could tell amazing stories of the ancient communities that lived there.

Standing under these primeval branches it’s easy to imagine Druidic priests collecting magical mistletoe with a golden sickle, catching it before it touched the tainted earth ready to use in spiritual rituals.

These hillfort trees could have watched prehistoric communities gathering around fires, wearing animal skins, heating food in cooking pots, gathering bracken for bedding and blackberries and hazelnuts for food – and defending the ramparts from invading Romans with bows and arrows.

Many generations of animals and birds have nested in their branches and hollows and their decaying boughs still provide a haven for invertebrates and reptiles – including common lizards and slow worms.

It is thought that Aymestrey (at the foot of the hill) was once a fortified town, along with Shrewsbury and Whitchurch – along the route through Mercia from Gloucester to Chester.   In 889, Aethelfleda governed Mercia (which was then a massive area across the whole of central England) and St. Alkmund was a prince of the Christian Kingdom of Northumbria.  Aethelfleda was a very powerful woman and was known as the ‘Lady of the Mercians’.  She built churches in fortified towns so they would have some protection from marauding Danes and, as she believed that St. Aklmund was her ancester, she named the churches after him.

The Croft family still live at Croft Castle but the estate is managed by the National Trust.

This article is published in the January 2019 edition of the Whitchurch Gossip.

Today’s Treasures – Moreton Corbet Castle

Today’s Treasures – Moreton Corbet Castle

In 1086 two Anglo Saxon thegns, Hunning and Wulfgeat, were living at Moreton Toret – maybe on the site where the first fortified timber house was built around 1100 – by the Torets.  It passed by marriage into the hands of the Corbets – who gave their name to the village – and was gradually replaced in stone in the traditional style of fortified manors in the Welsh Marches.

By the 16th century the Corbets were amongst the most powerful and richest landed gentry in Shropshire .  In 1485, Sir Richard Corbet supported the House of Lancaster at the Battle of Bosworth.  Richard III had alienated the people of Shrewsbury when he imprisoned Edward V and his brother, Richard of Shrewsbury, ‘The Princes in the Tower’ – Prince Richard was born in Shrewsbury in 1473.

Richard’s son, Sir Andrew Corbet modified the medieval castle making it into a manor house – remodelling the gatehouse and adding the Tudor great hall.  When Sir Robert Corbet inherited the castle, he completed the refurbishment of the castle, adding Sir Andrew’s monogram, SAC, which was carved above the gatehouse in 1579.   Sir Robert Corbet then set about building the new Elizabethan building – from elaborate plans he had brought back from Italy – and influenced by the classical architecture he had seen overseas in his role as a diplomat.  Unfortunately, he died of the plague in 1583.  After his death, his two brothers and successors, Richard and Vincent Corbet, carried on with the building of the new manor, but left what remained of the original fortification.

In 1642, during the Civil War, Sir Vincent Corbet, fought for the king and the house was used as part of Royalist Shrewsbury’s defence – you can still see where the masonry is pock-marked by musket shot.

At this time, Puritans were being persecuted and, whilst Sir Vincent was not himself a Puritan, he gave sanctuary to a neighbour, Paul Holmyard, who was. Unfortunately, as Holmyard’s views grew more radical, Sir Vincent felt he could no longer protect him and cast him out.  Holmyard cursed the family, declaring that none of them, or their descendants, would ever inhabit the house.

When Richard died, Vincent inherited huge debts, so he moved his family to Acton Reynald Hall and left the elaborate new building, begun by Robert, a quarter of a century ago, still unfinished.  Their grand design fell into decay – leaving Paul Holmyard’s ghost to inhabit the ruins.

Moreton Corbet Castle is still owned by the Corbet Family, but managed by English Heritage.

Published in the December edition of the Whitchurch Gossip

Today’s Treasures – Blackberry Fair

Blackberry Fair 2018

The subtle tones of an acoustic guitar serenade volunteers setting up tables in the hall – getting ready for workshops for youngsters – crafting items for the Carnival of Plenty – little ones create leaves for the Tree of Life – and older ones decorate poles with different bits and pieces that glow, and shine and rattle.

Volunteers appear for a welcome hot drink after putting up gazebos and  distributing sofas to strategic points about the town, musicians have finished setting up speakers and microphones – the stage is set for Blackberry Fair to begin once again.

The music changes and we’re clapping hands in time to a drumbeat, accompanied by a guitar – and voices join in singing well known songs. Next come the Urban Gypsies, dancing, swinging, gyrating to gypsy music – looking around, everyone is foot-tapping, clapping, swaying in time to the music – mesmerised – no-one can keep still.

Then comes the Whitchurch Brass Band, trumpets and cornets – and all conversation ceases as tubas and trombones send oompahs and oom-pah-pahs reverberating around the walls.  Lunchtime, there’s such a lot to choose from – wild boar burgers, freshly made pizzas, ice creams, and deliciously decorated cupcakes, with real beers and ciders to wash it all down with.

Blackberry Fair has an atmosphere all its own, the spirit of poetry, singers, dancers, actors, fine foods, real beers, street theatre, costumes and characters, Urban Gypsies and Morris Dancers, skateboarding and stilt walking, jugglers and firebreathers – all join Harminder the Elephant in the Carnival of Plenty procession at the end of the afternoon.

Entertainment continues into the night with live steel band music and fireworks – and another Blackberry Fair comes to an end with lots of happy memories for families to take home.  “Our children made puppets, crushed apples, watched films, literally the whole of Whitchurch was alive, down every street and avenue – it’s the best fair we’ve ever been to.”

Published in the November edition of the Whitchurch Gossip

Today’s Treasures Grindley Brook Staircase Locks

Grindley Brook Staircase Locks

It’s the Llangollen branch of the Shropshire Union Canal that drops down the staircase locks at Grindley Brook, then under the A41 and through three other locks on its way east to Nantwich.

Originally built by the Ellesmere Canal Company, this fabulous stretch of the Shropshire Union Canal was designed by Thomas Telford and completed in 1805.  It linked the ironworks and collieries of Wrexham to Chester via the Chester Canal, and extended west into the Montgomery Canal – which closed in 1936 and fell into disrepair but is now gradually being restored.

The canal carried lead and stone from Wrexham, bricks from Ruabon – and – by 1808 when the Whitchurch arm was opened – cheese from Whitchurch market to Ellesmere Port on the Fly Boat – a horse drawn canal boat – a journey of some 65 miles that took 24 hours, non-stop – except for changing horses along the way.

It was much later that it became the Llangollen branch of the Shropshire Union Canal and now is mainly important for holidaymakers.  Between March and November up to 60 boats a day negotiate the locks keeping the lock-keeper busy supervising – 3 boats up, then 3 boats down – he’s there between 8.30 am and 6.00 pm every day.  Visitors from all over the world come to enjoy the tranquillity of Britain’s canals, the beautiful rural scenery, the industrial architecture – and of course the trip across Thomas Telford’s famous Pontcysyllte Aqueduct near Llangollen.

The staircase locks at Grindley Brook are unique because they have no side ponds – the water comes from the River Dee near Llangollen via the feeder canal at the Horseshoe Falls at Llantysilio.

The Lockside Café is always busy with walkers along the Shropshire Way and the Sandstone Trail as well as boaters – it’s a fascinating place to sit and enjoy a cup of tea – watching the boats go up and down the locks – and the lock-keeper making sure that everyone takes turns and the lock gates and paddles are opened and shut in the correct order.

Published in the October edition of the Whitchurch Gossip

Today’s Treasures – Lake Bala – a Moment of Tranquility

Today’s Treasures – Lake Bala – a Moment of Tranquility

A visit to Lake Bala is always an uplifting experience.  Its tranquil waters have a calming effect.  On this late August morning it was amazing, the lake was drenched in clouds but as we watched, the floating mist drifted across the surface of the lake, dissipating in the sunshine.

A faint hint of the chill of autumn touches the morning air, the sun gathering warmth as it climbs in the sky.  Boats perch on the water, still as statues.  A slight breeze touches a flag and its reflection ripples the glass mirror surface.  The silence of the water is surreal.

Dewdrops glisten on blades of grass, twinkling tantalisingly in the sunlight.  As the clouds unfold, hilltops peep out like prehistoric creatures, fields and trees appear as if a magic paintbrush is wiping the mist away.

Sitting watching the last of the mist disappear, I let my mind drift in amongst the boats, floating along the ripples on the lake, free of life’s complexities, like a bird, devoid of human preoccupation.  A moment of tranquility.

Apart from being a beautiful place to sit and dream, Lake Bala (Llyn Tegid) is the largest natural lake in Wales and an internationally important Ramsar wetlands site.  It is the home of the Gwyniad (a type of whitefish), and glutinous snails – both species unique to the area.  In the River Tryweryn, one of the rivers that feed the lake, live freshwater pearl mussels and The Lamprey, a rare eel-like fish.

Pblished in the September edition of The Whitchurch Gossip magazine.

Today’s Treasures – The Big Butterfly Count

This year I took part in the Big Butterfly Count

www.bigbutterflycount.org

As soon as the buddleia comes out I always take some time to watch the myriad different butterflies who just love the purple spikes.  There’s often a dozen peacock butterflies sunning themselves on the flowers, sipping nectar, fluttering their wings and showing off their spectacular colours.

Counting butterflies on a beautiful sunny afternoon is a tranquil, calming experience, watching them flutter from flower to flower, sometimes dancing together against the blue sky and skating clouds, seeing how many different butterflies join the feast; large and small whites love the flowers and there’s usually one or two red admirals and commas as well.  This year there were also two painted lady butterflies – but no small tortoiseshells – evidently they have been attacked by a parasitic fly – one of the reasons why David Attenborough’s butterfly count is so important – we can see the effects of these invasive insects.

Butterflies love buddleia because it produces lots of nectar, its deep flowers are accessible only to insects with long tongues and its flowers are clustered together so a butterfly can collect lots of nectar from one place.  Verbena and cosmos also attract butterflies – and food plants for their caterpillars include nettles and thistles.  Also ragwort which is a fascinating plant to watch – dozens of different insects love the flowers and the black and yellow caterpillars of the beautiful red cinnabar moth love the leaves.

I also discovered that we have two different blue butterflies – the common blue – which likes bird’s foot trefoil – and the holly blue which (as the name suggests) feeds on holly (and ivy).

Meadow browns (left) and ringlets (right) love the marjoram in my herb garden.

Published in the August edition of the Whitchurch Gossip

Today’s Treasures – The Herb Garden

Today’s Treasures

The Herb Garden is my favourite place to sit and dream.  As you can see, it’s not just herbs – there are a few wild flowers as well – the foxgloves just come and go as they please, setting seed in the most unlikely places – and there are poppies in every corner of my garden.

Herbs are so versatile – some have pretty flowers like thyme, borage and hyssop – all of course have definitive scents – lavender and lemon balm, sage and tarragon, fennel, basil and coriander.

They make delicious flavours for the simplest meals – tarragon chicken, rosemary lamb, garlic and parsley bread, chopped chives with potato salad, mint sauce, sage and onion stuffing.

I love experimenting with herbs – my latest success was potato wedges roasted in olive, sunflower and groundnut oil sprinkled with a mixture of herbs freshly picked and chopped.  Traditional horseradish sauce made with freshly chopped horseradish root, salad cream, fresh cream, mustard powder and a hint of cayenne pepper is divine.

Mint sauce made with apple mint, vinegar, cabbage water and a spoonful of sugar makes even the blandest cabbage delicious.  Cooked carrots fried in a little butter with chopped lovage leaves give a continental twist to any meal.  Fresh basil livens up any pasta sauce – sprinkle curry with coriander leaves just before serving for a more authentic taste.

Lovage

Herbs also have healing properties – you don’t need to buy expensive packets of herbal tea – you can make your own by simply pouring boiling water over leaves of your choice.

Hyssop tea is good for maintaining healthy blood pressure – whether it’s high or low it helps stabilise it.  Peppermint tea helps digestion and soothes an upset tummy.  Chamomile is calming, sage is stimulating, fennel is relaxing.

Peppermint

You can add the flowers and leaves of calendula, nasturtium and borage to salads to add colour as well as flavour.  Borage flowers frozen into ice cubes made an attractive addition to summer drinks. Mint is an essential ingredient of any Pimm’s cocktail.  Poppy seeds can be added to cakes and cookies – and sprinkled onto bread rolls.

Wherever I am, I will always have a few pots of soothing, fragrant, healing herbs on my windowsill.

Published in the July edition of the Whitchurch Gossip