Saturday, 28 August 2010

The Large Skipper and a Comma

As far as butterflies go, the Large Skipper is not particularly uncommon but I don't recall seeing them in quite the numbers that I have this summer. They are active butterflies, frequently on the move and fast flying but eventually come to rest to feed or bask in the warmth of the sun.
.
.
The Large Skipper lays its eggs on a variety of grasses and so can be found in many habitats, particularly the edge of woodlands and along woodland rides. The photo below, taken in the deeply wooded Chiltern Hills, may look like a woodland ride but it is an ancient Saxon field or 'assart'. Assarting - the destruction of forest for agriculture - was considered to be one of the gravest crimes of all when carried out in any of the Royal Forests. This field still has remains of old coppiced or possibly of layed hedge - there is one Field Maple, Acer campestre that probably dates back a 1000 years to Saxon days. It now consists of a series of smallish trees around the space where the original trunk would have been.
. .
.
Despite its name, the Large Skipper is quite a small butterfly. The females, which are slightly larger than the males, have a wingspread of less than one and a half inches. Their diminutive size has not prevented them from spreading far and wide globally: they can be found from England in the west of Europe, right across the continents, to Japan in the Far East. For some reason they are not found in Ireland or most of the Mediterranean islands. However, their range is still spreading so perhaps they will colonise these places too one day.
.
.
The golden glow of these butterflies gives them a certain charm but they can not be described as pretty, especially with their huge, bulbous eyes. This glow is also present in the underside of the wing which shows up faint spots and helps to distinguish them from the Small Skipper and the Silver Spotted Skipper, both of which are to be found in Britain but far less frequently. The latter, incidentally, is also found in parts of North America.
. .
Another golden butterfly, but this time a very attractive one, is the Comma. It is everything the Large Skipper isn't - delicate, attractively marked and large. This butterfly was rare when I was a child but numbers have increased rapidly in recent years and it is now no longer considered endangered.
.
.
.
.
Add to Technorati Favorites

Friday, 20 August 2010

Searching for Granny ....

..... well, great-Granny actually. I hadn't exactly lost her for I had 'discovered' her in old census records when researching our family history. I also remembered being told, as a child, that "Granny used to live there". What I hadn't realised was that Granny and my more distant ancestors were some of the most important mill owners on the River Thames, the premier river of England. The family owned Marlow Mills, which they converted from corn to paper production in the early 1800's.
.
Marlow Mills survived many mishaps ranging from a very destructive fire to withstanding the riots that were a spill-over from the agricultural riots of the 1830's. Other mills in the area had their machinery destroyed - the ancestors were obviously made of tougher stuff, for they surrounded the mill with vicious man traps. The traps could still be seen hanging in their offices in the early 1900's - perhaps as a warning to any other miscreants! What it didn't survive was the craze for redevelopment and in the 1960's they were bulldozed and luxury riverside homes built in their place. Sadly, we no longer owned the mill by then: if we had I might be living in luxury for the 17 properties on the site sell now for around one million pounds each.
.
.
Yesterday, I found myself in Marlow on business but, with time to spare, decided to explore. How odd it felt walking these once familiar roads and riverside walks now knowing that two hundred years ago my family were doing the same. This street view probably hasn't changed much although, as the family were so religious, I can't imagine that they sat outside the local pub drinking alcohol in the warm, summer sunshine!
.

.
The view of the river, the church and the bridge must have changed even less, although they would have watched with interest the suspension bridge, designed by William Tierney Clark, being built in the 1830's (the old wooden bridge collapsed into the river in 1828). Ten years later, he designed and built a larger version of the bridge in Budapest, with which Marlow is twinned.
. .
This old post box must be one of the very earliest ones made for, even in Victoria's reign, the design became more elaborate. This one looks ancient but is still in everyday use - the VR stands for Victoria Regina, she reigned from 1837 - 1901 and is our longest reigning monarch. If it is one of the earliest it could date back to 1853, the year that post boxes were first introduced. Incidentally, by tradition, all British post boxes bear the initials in Latin of the reigning monarch at time of manufacture. I wonder how many of my family had posted letters here?
.
.
.
I knew, from an old record found on the internet, that Joseph Wright - my great-great grandfather - had been instrumental in building a free church in the town. To my delight, not only did I find the church still thriving, I was able to speak with a senior member of the congregation who, by chance, happened to be there. I was shown a history of the church but there was no mention whatsoever of the Wright family connection, a name not even known to them. Had I got the right place?
. .
Searching through old gravestones, I first came across one with the initials J W and M A D carved in the base. The initials turned out to be for Mary Ann Downing (not for death by insanity!), a name I'd not heard of and, frustratingly, the husband's name had been damaged and was barely legible - I could just make out the name Joseph. However, it had obviously been a smart grave once for there were the signs that it had been surrounded by iron railings. But why Downing and why J W?
.
.
.
.
Then I came across the grave, below, that looked so recent. To my amazement it wasn't new at all but over 130 years old. The marble and the railings of such high quality that they showed no sign of wear. Here the names were clear - they were of William, Joseph Wright's brother and partner in the milling business, and his wife.
.
.
.
Further along was another grave in good condition, although more modest. It was unusal for it was very long and narrow. Almost overlooked in my excitement, this was the grave of Ellen Wright my 'own' grandmother's mother. I had found great-Granny! I knew of Ellen for she had been born in Finland, which had always been something of a mystery. I found that she had been born there because her father was, for a few years, at a paper mill there before returning to the mill at Marlow. Was he learning new techniques or was he there advising?
.
.
The final pieces of the jigsaw came into place when, at home, I found that after Joseph's death, Mary Ann had remarried (hence the Downing surname). Her widowed husband obviously agreed to her wishes and she was laid to rest with Joseph, her first love.
.
Feeling extraordinarily emotional (strange, really, for I did not know them in the true sense), I reported back my discoveries to the gentleman in the church who was equally delighted to discover that these unknown benefactors were still present within the church they had helped to create.
.
Now all that is left to close the circle of 200 years is for me to attend a service, something I hope to do in the very near future.
.

Add to Technorati Favorites

Thursday, 12 August 2010

An Unexpected Downpour

The heatwave may have ended a good number of days ago but the dry weather hasn't and the gardens are desparate for water. Digging down to plant some large shrubs the other day, there was no sign of moisture in the soil, nor earthworms for that matter, no matter how deep I dug. It is tedious to water with a hosepipe and, for some inexplicable reason, (perhaps it's the chemicals in tap water), plants react so much better to a drop of rain.
.
Today the skies were grey but, as none had been forecast, it came as a surprise when I thought I could smell rain in the air. And was that a distant roll of thunder or was it just wishful thinking? With no further warning, the heavens opened, the rain bouncing off the surface of the lane and the leaves of the plants. By the time I had reached my camera, it was already beginning to ease.
.
.
.
They must have had more rain than us, further up the secret valley, for water continued to rush down the lane in its haste to reach the river. Just past the bend its route took a sharp right turn to tumble down the steep banks to enter the meanders - the ones that feature on the header of this blog - just above the road bridge.
.
.
It's a novelty to see puddles once again!
.
.
I couldn't resist catching these images of the herbs cloaked in moisture. The French Tarragon seems to be greedier than most and holds water all over the surface of its leaves. The bronze Fennel, however, holds its drops in a very much more refined way as befits such a graceful plant.
.
.
.
Cotinus - this is the variety called 'Grace' - appeared splattered with rain, as if it had been flicked with paintbrushes. It held its drops in different sizes, some so large I wondered how they could remain in place and keep separate from the smaller sized ones alongside.
.
.
The old fountain head of a cherub and dolphin sits at the top of a flight of steps leading to the garden, for many years no longer used for its original purpose. Did the rain bring a slight smile to its lips and was that a tear that rolled down its cheek to its chin as it recalled its real purpose in life?
.
.
If above is the picture of innocence, what is this next one? A single raindrop on each barb transforms the fence but it can only partially disguise its wickededness. We are not that easily fooled ...
.
.
Thirty minutes after the rain stopped the secret valley was shrouded in mist as the cooled air reacted with the warm earth. A short battle for supremacy ensued but, along with a slash of blue sky came a winning dart of sunlight and the mist fell to the ground, disappearing as quickly as the rain.
.
.

Friday, 6 August 2010

"A Massive Piece of Granite"

It is a family joke that whenever a large piece of stone is seen, one person asks "What is it?" and the other answers - slowly and after much deliberation and head scratching - "well, it's a massive piece of granite". For, many years ago, this was the only answer we got from an old countryman at an ancient stone burial chamber that towered above us.
.
Burial chambers, stone circles and other standing stones, which mostly date back 5000 years or so are reasonably common around Britain,and a surprising number of them are quite impressive. There are several scattered around the Cotswolds and I have written about our little known and little visited Old Soldier and also the very well known and very much visited stone circle, the Rollright Stones.
.
.
The Old Soldier
.
.
The Rollright Stones
.
Far more scarce and, perhaps even more impressive, are the stone 'clapper' bridges. These are often not as old as they look although, even these, were probably built the best part of a 1000 years ago. I find these bridges, which are mostly in the West Country on Dartmoor and Exmoor, just as impressive as Stonehenge, England's world famous ancient stone monument. The clapper bridge in the photoographs below is at Postbridge, on Dartmoor, in the county of Devon. This clapper bridge was built to aid the transport of tin from moorland mines about 1200AD.
.
.
The 'new' bridge in the background, which carries the road and car traffic over the East Dart river is a mere upstart, having been built about 1780. In the photo below, I love the way the arch of the new bridge is framed by the 'arch' of the old one.
.
.
The granite slabs measure over 4 metres (13ft) long and are over 2 metres (6ft 6in) wide and weigh over 8 tons each. Despite this, over the centuries they have been swept away downstream by floods. Some have been rebuilt many times, others lost forever. However did they, without modern technology, transport them?
.
.
.
The bridge just invites you to step onto it and it can be the starting point of many walks that lead across the open moorland. It was for me, a couple of months ago. On that walk, I found deserted settlements and the most incredible stone circle - unusual in that there were two circles side by side. I shall write more of this soon.
.
.
Even now, when a special occasion needs to be commemorated it is to stone that we often turn to. To my knowledge, no modern material is in common use to mark the burial place of a loved one: we mark our graves in a very similar way as our most distant ancestors, with stone slabs.
.
We also use stone to mark more joyous occasions. This standing stone was placed on Ibstone Common, high in the Chiltern Hills, to commemorate the millenium. A small thread that unites us through 5000 years of history and far into the future - a comforting thought.
.
.

Add to Technorati Favorites