Alongside the path at St. Just in Roseland Church in Cornwall there is a tablet of stone with the words: “There is great beauty in old trees, old streets and ruins old. Why should not I as well as these, grow lovely growing old?”
Fagus – the Beech Queen
And I often think of this verse when I look at this beautiful beech tree. It also makes me think of The Animals of Farthing Wood – who lost their homes when their tree was blown down – I can imagine birds and squirrels nesting in the branches and rabbits and mice living in the roots. And, in the breeze, the leaves make the wisha wisha sound of the Faraway Tree in Enid Blyton’s Enchanted Wood.
Beech trees were not as important to the Druids as oak trees but beech groves have been found in and near significant places of power – like the Cerne Abbas chalk giant – and at Avebury – where Tennyson’s description of the ‘serpent-rooted beech tree’ is particularly apt.
In Celtic mythology, Fagus was the god of beech trees. Beech is associated with femininity and thought of as the queen of British trees – whereas oak – Quercus – is the king.
The Druids frequently worshipped and practised their rites in oak groves and tree worship has always played a large role in Midsummer festivities with trees near wells and fountains traditionally decorated with coloured ribbons.
Quercus – the Oak King
The Oak King rules during the waxing of the year and represents strength, courage and endurance and the oak has always been particularly significant at Litha (the summer solstice). The Celtic name for oak is ‘Duir’ which means doorway – at midsummer we cross the threshold and enter into the waning part of the year – ruled by the Holly King – until the winter solstice at Yule.
You might think it’s a silly thing to do – but tree hugging really does make you feel better – even if it only makes you laugh because you feel silly hugging a tree! The larger the tree the better – because you need at least two people for a group hug!
Published in the June 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
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.
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….?
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.
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.
St. Alkmund was a prince of the Christian Kingdom of Northumbria, – so why do we have churches in Shropshire named after him? In 889, Aethelfleda, governed Mercia (which was a massive area across the whole of central England). She was a very powerful woman and was known as the ‘Lady of the Mercians’. She believed that St. Alkmund was her ancestor, and she named the churches built at that time after him – at Aymestrey, Shrewsbury and Whitchurch – which were most likely all fortified towns on the route through Mercia from Gloucester to Chester – so the churches would therefore have had some protection from marauding Danes.
I always feel very fortunate to have been born in Britain – where women have mostly been respected and we have had some great female leaders – like Aethelfleda – and Boadicea, who was queen of the Iceni and led her people into battle against the Romans.
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.
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
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.
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.)