March in Barbara’s Back Yard – Spring is Just Around the Corner

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.

Today’s Treasures – Shrewsbury

Today’s Treasures – SHREWSBURY

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 – 1st February

1st February – Imbolc

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.

January 25th is Burns Night

25th January – Burns Night

Have you ever attended a Burns supper?

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.

The Story of Keri and Lily – New Zealand White Rabbits

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.

New Year in Barbara’s Back Yard

New Year in Barbara’s Back Yard

Last October, I made a wreath for Hallowe’en with crab apples and hawthorn berries and autumn leaves. When I replaced it with a Yule wreath at the beginning of December, I hung my Hallowe’en wreath near the bird table. I have just refreshed it, replacing the leaves with ivy and adding some of the holly from the Yule wreaths.

I hang the Yule wreaths up in the barn – keeping them to use next year.

Last year when I came to make new wreaths – when I took them down – I found two of them had nests in them.

If you haven’t done it already – it’s time to clear out nestboxes ready for Spring.

https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/advice/how-you-can-help-birds/nestboxes/nestboxes-for-small-birds/cleaning-nestboxes

January is a good time to take hardwood cuttings from roses and shrubs:  Cut a piece of twig from the previous year’s growth – as thick as a pencil and about six inches long. You need a straight cut at the bottom just below a node and the top should have a diagonal cut just above a node.  Place each cutting in the centre of a homemade newspaper pot containing a heavily-gritted soil mix. You can cram several individual wrapped cuttings into one plant pot. By late spring unroll to see if root hairs have developed – if not leave them a while longer.  Once roots have grown you can plant them out. (courtesy of Country Wisdom & Folklore diary)

It was believed to be beneficial to propogate cuttings at the time of the waning moon, as the earth is said to inhale – and the sap is encouraged to travel towards the roots.  Could this be something to do with the pull/push of the moon on the earth – the same force that causes the tides…?

Sage, honey and lemon tea is good for coughs and colds.  Dissolve 1 tblsp honey in half a pint of boiling water with the juice of 1 lemon. Add 2 tblsp of fresh sage – or one of dried – leave to infuse for minutes, strain and reheat.

Squirrels can be a real nuisance – I don’t mind them eating some of the bird food – but they seem to have to wreck all the feeders in the process.  I have started putting some nuts out on the ground for the squirrels and so far this seems to be working.  There were some sweet chestnuts left over from Bonfire Night and I’ve put those out for them.  It’s quite fun watching them – they pick up a nut and eat it, then they run off with the next nut and bury it, then eat a nut, then bury a nut.

So next time we go to Grinshill, we’ll collect some more chestnuts for them.

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

Just Another Day in Barbara’s Back Yard

Just Another Day in Barbara’s Back Yard

I was standing at the kitchen sink this morning (as I very often do!) and a sparrowhawk landed on the little table in front of the kitchen window.  Amazing, it was so close.  Usually you struggle to identify birds of prey circling high in the sky above you but this was so easy to identify – it was so close. Even though I stood perfectly still, I must have blinked because he was off in a flash – but the picture in my mind remains.

Daisy laid her very first egg this morning.  Dorking eggs are pale – not brown – and this is probably one of the reasons that Dorkings are now a rare breed.  Although the nutritional content of white and brown eggs is exactly the same – the perception is different – and consequently supermarkets only seem to sell brown eggs now.

Once Dillon learned to crow, he quickly realised he could do other things too – much to Doris’s consternation (she had obviously forgotten about Dillon the First).  The Spice Girls seemed to accept it as par for the course.  I can never quite figure out whether hens like to be jumped on – the ducks however do seem to enjoy it.  When we first had ducks (and geese) I was told we would need a pond if we wanted fertile eggs, so we spent ages digging out a pond deep enough for the geese to swim in.  The ducks and geese did love the pond – but they managed equally well on dry land.

Before I started this blog, I used to let the hens out then rush off to start work.  Now I am writing a blog, I sit and watch them for a while each morning and it’s amazing how much more you notice.  Doris (the oldest hen)) always comes to stand by my feet, waiting for some sunflower seeds.  The Spice Girls are quite adventurous now – and less timid that the other hens.  I use black plastic sheets on the vegetable patch to supress weeds – slimy creatures love to hide under it – so every so often I spread it out for the hens and ducks – the spice Girls are always the first on there picking off slugs and snails.

Doris

Dillon (cockerel) and Desmond (drake) have had a few scraps but they seem to have come to a sort of truce and, provided they keep out of each other’s way, everything’s fine.  I have learned that you do need at least 2 ducks with a drake, especially if you are keeping ducks and hens together – the previous drake insisted on mating with one of the hens and I had to separate them.  (Several reasons I won’t go into here – their anatomy is different and therefore damaging to the hen.)

 

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