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 – 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
March in Barbara’s Back Yard – Spring is Just Around the Corner
Spring is just around the corner – 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 again.
The broad beans I planted in December have mostly survived but don’t seem to have grown at all – and the ones I planted in pots a few weeks ago are about the same size – I planted them out this week – quite firmly – with news of the impending strong winds.
In between the showers, I have planted the first lot of onion sets but they don’t seem to be growing at all yet – obviously need some warmth before they get started.
This year I bought Eckford sweet pea seeds (which I found in D T Brown’s catalogue) – and I’ve had much better success with growing these than other varieties. In previous years, although I’ve always put them in the propagator, less than half have sprouted. If you pinch out the tips of sweet peas it encourages them to be more bushy.
The Eckford Sweet Pea was first bred in Shropshire – but it is named after the horticulturist, Henry Eckford who was born in 1823 in Edinburgh. In 1870 he was in charge of a garden at Sandywell in Gloucester and his employer encouraged his interest in breeding plants. When they moved to Boreatton in Shropshire, Dr. Sankey encouraged him further and he started the development of the Sweet Pea which had changed little since it was first introduced from Sicily in 1699. In 1888 Henry Eckford moved to Wem and established Eckford’s Nursery which specialised in sweet peas and now sweet pea lovers from all over the country visit Wem in July each year for the Eckford Sweet Pea Festival, organised by the Eckford Sweet Pea Society – and Wem has become the ‘Home of the Sweet Pea’.
And Eckford sweet peas seem to be much easier to germinate than other varieties I have tried.
I’ve also sown some herbs in pots – coriander, basil and parsley – and they have all germinated and I have moved them to the polytunnel as there is more light there than in the conservatory. Tomato seeds are now just sprouting in the propagator.
Daisy has started laying again – as soon as she goes broody – and stays on the nest at night – I will move her to a separate pen – and hopefully we might get some Dorking chicks this year.
I’ve now sold most of the NZWhite x Californian rabbits. There is still one white buck – and an adorable Californian buck who is so soft and so friendly I shall be sad to part with him – he will make a lovely pet. Lunar’s first litter are now 10 weeks old – 3 survived – two does and a buck. She has just mated again. With this litter I will make sure they all just have rabbit pellets – no mix and no apples – and hopefully they will all survive – although I can’t be sure it was different food that caused the upset to their digestive system. Dandelion is doing really well at 4 years old but I might need to think about getting a new buck soon.
So lovely to see all the spring flowers – daffodils and tulips, primroses and grape hyacinths – and to hear the frogs burbling in the pond again.
End of February and the weather is beautiful. Still very cold at night – and the tap by the barn was frozen this morning so had to use the bucket by the house – but the sun is lovely once the mist and frost have cleared. This time last year we had the Beast from the East and we made a snowman, this year we are told it will be the Wet from the West at the end of the week – but we could really do with some rain – the wild pond has only a puddle of water in the middle.
I’ve been looking out for frogs – by the end of February they are usually hopping back to the pond to find a mate – but there’s no sign of them yet – in any of the ponds. It’s quite fascinating watching them – if you sit still, more and more beady eyes pop up out of the water – and I love to hear their burbling – especially late in the evening – it always sounds louder in the dark.
As it’s been quite dry so far this year, I’ve dug the bean trench and put in a mixture of manure from the hen house, rabbit manure – and compost from the compost bin. The rest of the compost has been spread over the potato patch. One February it myvegetable patch had a moat around it – and I couldn’t do anything as the ground was much too wet. This year I’ve already planted some onion sets and the parsnips will go in once my seeds arrive – which should be today.
This year I ordered seeds from www.dtbrownseeds.co.uk – I received a catalogue in the post – and you can still order with a cheque – or by phone – but online is definitely easier – there are more varieties on the website – and you can also find out if items are in stock.
I’ve ordered some potatoes – second earlies – and set them out in trays ready to sprout. The DT Brown instructions are excellent: After unpacking, put potato tubers in a cool, light, well-ventilated and frost-free place, away from direct sunlight.
Potatoes can be divided into five categories, planted from March to July
First earlies – plant mid-late March – ready June to July
Second earlies – plant in late March – ready July to August
Early maincrops – plant in April – ready August
Late maincrop – plant early May – ready September onwards
Second Cropping / Late Cropping – plant from early July – ready September to December
The chitting process allows strong green shoots (chits) to develop on the tuber before planting. Although not essential, it is particularly beneficial for the earlier cropping potatoes because it give the potato a quick start, thus cropping earlier. Set the seed potatoes out, side by side (I use egg trays) blunt end uppermost (this is the end opposite where the stalk was that attached the potato to the parent plant – but you can’t always see this).
Plant tubers 4-6 in deep (10 – 15 cm), earlies 10-12 in apart, in rows 2 ft apart; maincrop 12-14 in apart in rows 30 in apart. Once shoots appear above the surface you need to earth them up (draw up soil over the tubers forming a ridge). This gives the plant a volume of soil in which to grow, stops the tubers turning green, and improves drainage and ventilation.
It also gets rid of weeds. I mulch everything else with grass cuttings – but when I did this with potatoes they all got blight so earthing up regularly works much better.
Potatoes are ready to harvest when the tops reach full size – weather permitting, they will usually attempt to produce flowers – or at least buds – at this time.
When onions arrive put them into a cool, light, well-ventilated and frost fre place, away from direct sunlight.
Plant between February and April, as soon as the soil is sufficiently dry and warm. Onions form a bulb when the temperature and the number of daylight hours hit the right combination for them, which triggers their clock. Until that happens, onions use the daylight to produce a good deal of top growth before they form bulbs (and the more top growth, the bigger the bulb). When the day reaches the right number of hours for that variety of onion, the onion will stop forming top growth, and form a bulb instead. The size of the bulb that eventually forms depends on the size of the ‘stalks’ and the number of them. there will be 1 ring in the onion for every stalk that formed, and the larger the stalk, the larger each ring will be. bulb formation will pause during dry, very hot or very cold weather.
Break off any flower stems which appear. Mulching is useful for cutting down watering and for suppressing weeds. Stop watering once the onions have swollen and pull back the covering earth or mulch to expose the bulb surface to the sun to dry. When the bulb is mature, the foliage turns yellow and topples over. Leave them for 2 weeks and then carefully lift with a folk on a dry day.
Onions which are not for immediate use must be dried. Spread out the bulbs on sacking or in trays; outdoors if the weather is warm and sunny of indoors if the weather is wet. Drying will take 7 to 21 days depending on the size of the bulbs and air temperature. Store unblemished onions in trays, net bags 0r tied into plaits.
I’ve also planted some broad beans in pots – and sown some herb seeds – which are in the propagator.
Daisy has decided to sit on some eggs so I’ve moved her to a pen on her own – it stops the other hens pestering her (because they always want to lay their eggs where she is sitting) and, if the eggs do hatch, they are in a safe place.
Everyone loves a good ghost story. In January, I gave a talk on folklore – myths, legends – and tales of witches, wizards, Druids, saints, fairies – and of course ghosts.
Did you know that Shropshire is one the most haunted counties? And with its timbered buildings and cobblestone alleys it is hardly surprising that Shrewsbury is believed to be one of the oldest and most haunted towns in the UK and that the dead are often seen walking among the living along its cobbled streets.
There’s that macabre painting in a room in the Nags Head that is said to be cursed – and allegedly caused the suicides of three people who slept in that room. No-one knows who painted it in such a strange place – or why – but their ghosts still haunt this 17th century coaching inn.
The Dun Cow is one of the oldest public houses in the UK – built by Roger de Montgomery, First Earl of Shrewsbury, around 1085 – it was a hostelry with its own brewery. A Dutch army officer was hung on the scaffold in the stables – but he is just one of the ghosts said to haunt this pub.
Shrewsbury castle is haunted by serial killer, Bloody Jack who was finally hung, drawn and quartered on Pride Hill; and the station has the ghost of a local councillor who was crushed when the roof collapsed over platform 3 in 1887.
Perhaps that’s why Shrewsbury also has a lot of saints, immortalised in its churches: St. Nicholas, St Chad, St. Alkmund, St. Mary, St. George, St. Peter and St. John.
St. Alkmund’s church is haunted by the spirit of a drunken 15th-century steeple jack who fell to his death after attempting to climb the church tower on a wager.
In 911, Aethelfleda, the ‘Lady of the Mercians’, believed that St. Alkmund, prince of Northumbria, was her ancestor, and she named the churches built at that time after him – at Aymestrey, Shrewsbury and Whitchurch – most likely all fortified towns on the route through Mercia from Gloucester to Chester – providing protection from marauding Danes.
The spire of the medieval church of St Mary’s – one of the tallest in England – has dominated the skyline of Shrewsbury’s old town for over 500 years. In 1739, showman Robert Cadman attempted to slide from it, head first, using a rope and a grooved breastplate. His engraved obituary stands outside the west door.
Published in the february edition of the Whitchurch gossip
Imbolc is a Gaelic festival marking the promise of spring. It is a celebration of the lengthening days and occurs halfway between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. It corresponds to the Welsh ‘Mary’s Festival of the Candles’ and the Christian feast days of Saint Brigid and Candlemas.
The word Imbolc probably comes from the Old Irish Imbolc meaning ‘in the belly’ which refers to the pregnancy of ewes – as at this time of year we see new born lambs along with snowdrops and early spring bulbs.
Purification was an important part of Imbolc – with spring cleaning – and lighting of candles and fires – representing the return of warmth and the increasing power of the sun. People would visit holy wells and ask for good health whilst walking in a deosil (Gaelic sun-wise) direction around the well.
Robert Burns wrote the poem ‘Address to a Haggis’ which is what linked Burns and the haggis together forever – and Robert Burns became celebrated as the national poet of Scotland.
Burns suppers typically include haggis, Scotch whisky and the recitation of Burns poetry. They generally begin with the Selkirk Grace – so called because Burns was said to have delivered it at a dinner given by the Earl of Selkirk:
Some hae meat an canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
And sae the Lord be thankit.
After soup, everyone stands as the haggis is piped in, then comes the recital of Burns’ poem ‘the Address to a Haggis’. After a whisky toast to the haggis, the meal is served with tatties (potatoes) and neeps (swedes), followed by more toasts, speeches, songs and dancing, and concluding with Auld Lang Syne.
So why don’t we have a Shakespeare supper – to celebrate our great English poet?
Perhaps we should celebrate all our British poets along with Robert Burns on Burns Night. Drink a toast to them and eat tatties and neeps with our meat. Recite our favourite poems – and share the beauty of their words with our feast.
Squirrels can be a real nuisance – and they have wrecked some of my bird feeders. When we had a dog she used to chase them off. When she died, the cat took over responsibility and kept them away from the bird table. Now we are dog-less and cat-less (very sad walking down the pet food aisle in the supermarket – I try to avoid going down that aisle if I can!). So the squirrels are back. My sister bought me a little dish for Christmas – and we had some chestnuts left over from bonfire night – so I thought I would try putting out some nuts for the squirrels in the hope that they would leave my bird feeders alone!
It seems to be working – the squirrel comes to the chestnuts first – he sits and eats one, then runs off and hides one, then eats one, then buries one. And, so far, he’s left the bird feeders alone.
Today though he’s decided to bury the nuts in my rock garden – digging up the pansies in the process – so tomorrow I’ll put out a few less nuts and maybe he won’t bury so many….?
Lunar and Dandelion’s First Litter – pure New Zealand White rabbits
Lunar gave birth on 29th December – so her babies are now just 3 weeks old. I think there are nine of them but I haven’t counted them yet – it’s best not to disturb them too much when they are tiny – and mum always pops her head round to keep an eye on them!
When they are born I check as best I can that there are no dead babies – they are normally left away from the others so it’s easy to remove them. Thankfully I rarely get babies born dead – but sometimes if it’s a big litter the tiniest might not survive.
I check them once or twice a day to make sure none have got separted – if they have I gently push them back to the others so they don’t get cold.
At ten days old their eyes open and at 3 weeks they start hopping around their pen – they are so cute – this is the best part of breeding rabbits – I can watch them for ages.
And these are all pure New Zealand Whites – no black noses and toes this time!
New Zealand White Rabbits – The Story of Keri and Lily
Last Spring I was contact by a lady via Facebook who had bought two rabbits at an auction and thought one of them might be pregnant. I explained that when does reach maturity (around 6 months old) if they haven’t mated they may still think they are pregnant and make a nest – they pick up hay in their mouths and carry it to their chosen site – and sometimes they will even go as far as pulling out their fur to line the nest.
I explained that there was nothing she needed to do except ensure the doe was making her nest in a safe place – sheltered from the weather. Both does had the run of her fairly small garden with a choice of several boxes to shelter in.
Does are generally very capable mothers and will just get on with it, have all their babies at one time, in one place and feed them until they are old enough to feed themselves.
So back to the story of Keri and Lily: Shortly afterwards, the lady came back to me and asked if I knew anyone who wanted to buy her two rabbits. I had lost both my does – I had been keeping them in runs outside in the summer – during the day – and something took both of them at different times – despite the fact that I was outside with them most of the time they were out. I was devastated – and couldn’t find any NZWhites to replace them – so straight away I said I would have them. She lived Devon way but we were visiting my sister who lives in Cornwall – so we arranged to collect them on the way back.
It was a boiling hot day – and we anticipated arriving around lunchtime – so I texted to ask if she had managed to catch both the does – she hadn’t! So when we arrived both does were happily running around the garden – and were both quite grubby. I ended up chasing them around the garden until I figured out a way to trap them. Eventually we got them both into cat baskets and headed for home.
Both does settled in well but one of them had ear mites – so I had to treat both of them. I mated Keri and she gave birth to 12 babies – although one of them died. Dandelion (my buck) is 4 years old so he’s doing really well siring such a big litter. It wasn’t until the babies were around three weeks old that I noticed some of them were getting black noses – and soon they had black ears, tails and toes – obviously Keri had some Californian blood in her. I then noticed that she did have slightly grey ears – but of course I hadn’t noticed that when she was running around the garden all dusty!
By this time, I had mated Lily and she had a litter of 3 kits. And I had mated Keri again because pure NZWhites are always in high demand – I’ve never had a problem selling them. But I did now have a problem with selling rabbits that were not pure breeds – which is why I have so many rabbits available. For breeding for meat these rabbits should be excellent, despite not being pure – they have enough NZW blood in them – and both breeds are large rabbits – and they are cheaper at £15 each than buying a pure breed.
Happily I have found new homes for both Keri and Lily but still have their babies to sell.
I have also found a pure NZWhite doe – Lunar – and she has just had a litter – so I will also have some pure NZWhites available around the middle of March.