Wednesday, 29 September 2010

First Signs of Autumn

To quote from the Keats poem 'To Autumn', is rather cliched I know but it really is becoming the "season of mists and mellow fruitfulness" here in the secret valley. I have to admit until I decided upon the theme for this post that, although I had heard this line so many times before, I'd never read the poem. I suspect a large number of people would admit the same so I have included it here, in full, at the end.
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Almost imperceptably, the leaves have started to turn colour although they are still more green than yellow, orange or red. The most noticeable sign of the new season has been the berries and other fruits. Despite the heavy, late spring frosts we had, it seems to be a bumper crop this year although I have heard that commercial crops of apples are down by 30%.
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The river a few hundred yards downstream from our little stone cottage broadens to become a small lake, created 100 years ago to attract duck and fish for the pot. Invisible throughout the summer months because of the leafy shrubs that shield it, it gradually comes into view as the foliage withers and falls and the water levels rise with the winter rain. Then it gives us what one of our friends describes as "the best view from any bath(wash)room in England" - and it is! What can be more decadent than lying in the bath with a glass of wine in hand, watching the wild geese and swans flying in from who knows where, for we rarely see them during the summer months?
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And it is the river and lake that tends to give us the mists on cool mornings. There is such a subtle difference between these mists and the fogs that are much more widespread across the country. We can recognise the difference instantly but how do we describe it in meaningful words? Perhaps mists drift to rise and fall as strands of it are caught on the slightest breeze, an uplifting experience for the soul, whereas fogs sit heavily both on the ground and on our spirits?
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A few days ago, on such a misty morning, it was cool enough for a heavy dew to form transforming the scenery with its silver frosting. Cobwebs hung from every available perch: strands of wire, branches and twigs, even the dying flower stems of the wild plants were draped with them. The scene was of silence and stillness, no bird sang and even the brook seemed to gurgle and babble more quietly than normal, as if reluctant to wake the slumbering countryside.
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As if to confirm the silence and emptiness of the landscape, even the new seasons swan, that I had admired on the lake the day before, had gone. Heavily in moult, all there was to confirm its arrival were white feathers slowly drifting on the surface saying "Hush! Be still. All is calm".
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To Autumn
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Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernal; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease.
For Summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.
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Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,
Drows'd with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.
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Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too -
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
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Wednesday, 22 September 2010

A Walk Along the River Otter: Part 2

The lower reaches of the river Otter turn from fresh water to brackish as the river joins the sea. At low tide, mud and salt flats are exposed creating a safe habitat for the hundreds of seabirds and waders that feed, breed or rest on migration there. This area, including its wildlife, I have written about earlier - it can be found by clicking here.
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This post describes a walk a little further upstream where the river flows through fertile fields of wheat and where cattle and sheep graze in lush riverside meadows.
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The river - which like our river in the secret valley - is really little more than a stream (or 'brook' as we say where I originate from - English dialect is another fascinating subject that I might write about one day!). One moment fast flowing, the next slow, but always crystal clear, the view is one of steep banks and stony bottom. It is here, in the shallower water, that the trout - huge in comparison with our tiny ones at home - sway in the current, waiting for food to be swept down towards them and their ever open mouths. At one place where the river runs across a steeply shelved weir, a salmon run has been built: a series of steps for the salmon to leap to reach the upper levels of the river for spawning after their long migration. Whether they still do, I do not know, for salmon stocks in England are dwindling fast.
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Wood and water, just nothing but water and wood, for the crowds of visitors that explore the river close to the beach and form long queues at the ice cream stalls have all been left far behind. Now the sights, sounds and smells are only those of nature on this glorious late summer's day. The trees are only just beginning to show a hint of the autumn to come but, somehow, their berries have already stamped their mark on the autumn landscape, glowing in and reflecting the sun's warmth.
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Along the river bank, swamping much of the native flora, the Himalayan Balsam is giving a final explosion of colour before the first frosts destroy them for another year. And explosion is the correct description of their bursting seed heads which throw the seed far and wide as they split open. Found in many damp places throughout the country, for its seeds are also dispersed by the movement of the water, the Himalyan Balsam is an unwelcome immigrant to Britain which is virtually impossible to control. A member of the Impatien family, its seedheads are similar to those of our familiar garden Busy Lizzie.
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Along the final stretch of our walk, the river is backed by the same red sandstone cliffs that can be seen by the coast. How many millenia did it take for this gentle stream to cut its way through to its present level? My photography skills - or perhaps my patience - did not allow me to get shots of the kingfishers that darted up and down as a flash of azure along this reach of the river. High up in the rock face, their nesting holes (or were they the breeding sites of the sand martins that had already begun their long flight south to winter in Africa?) were more easily photographed.

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The ten mile walk to the source of the Otter will have to wait for another visit to the West Country. Oh, and I nearly forgot to mention, otters can be found - but rarely seen - along the whole length of the river.

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Tuesday, 14 September 2010

A Walk Along the River Otter: part 1

The River Otter although not long in length - barely 20 miles from its source in the Blackdown Hills to the sea - is rich in wildlife. Mostly flowing through Devon, in Britain's West Country, it rises just over the border in the county of Somerset. Passing through rich and fertile farmland it enters the English Channel at Budleigh Salterton where its estuary is protected from the sea by a large pebble bank. It is here that this walk begins.
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The mudflats, reedbeds and adjoining fields are all part of a relatively small nature reserve, backed by the town on one side and high red sandstone cliffs to the other. The whole area forms part of a World Heritage site for it is part of the English coastline known as the Jurassic Coast, famous for its rock formations, clear water and abundant fossils. The underlying stone of the Otter valley holds one of the most important aquifers in England supplying drinking water to 200,000 people (source: Wikipedia, where else do we go for this sort of infortmation?!).
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The birdlife, especially at this time of year as migration takes place, is spectacular. In my excitement in trying out my new telephoto lens, I forgot to take general views of the coastline and town. However, as tourism plays such an important part of the Devon economy, it is easy to visit and stay locally - it is well worth adding to your 'places to visit' list.
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There is no public access to the mudflats which means that the birds are relatively undisturbed. However, there are good footpaths along the edges and also hides, where it is possible to view the wildlife with the aid of good binoculars or camera. The Little Egret, below, was a rare visitor to England until very recently. Now, although still not often seen, they are more frequent and breed here. We have even had them occasionally visit us in the secret valley. The Canada Goose also was once a rare escapee from wildfowl collections - now they are seen everywhere and are one of our commonest geese.
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Glossy Ibis are an extreme rarity and thirteen had arrived here earlier a few days ago. If they were about they remained hidden from view. Strutting about - and unaware of how comical they look when away from water were a pair of Bar-tailed Godwits. These birds breed in Scandinavia and the Arctic and thousands pass through Britain on the migration back south with a few staying all year round but never breeding. Despite their numbers they are easily missed so being able to photograph this one was a real treat!
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Of all the birds to be seen that day, none were so plentiful yet so beautiful as this Mediterranean Gull. Or, at least, that is what I think it is. Living as I do, as far inland as is possible in the British Isles, my seabird identification skills are not as good as they might be. No matter, it had a grace unlike the majority of the gull family, yet I don't think it was a tern. I wait to be corrected.
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Thursday, 2 September 2010

Richard Long's Extraordinary Land Art

I have found that there are no shades of grey when appreciation - or lack of it - of Richard Long's art is discussed. It seems that either, like me, you are swept away by it or you just cannot see the point of it at all. Whilst respecting this latter point of view, I ask myself, "Does art have to have a point"? For me, of all art forms , Richard Long's work demonstrates that beauty can be appreciated just for it's own sake.
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British born (in Bristol, where he still lives and works), Richard Long studied art in both Bristol and London, giving his first solo exhibition in Germany in 1968, as he completed his studies. I imagine this is quite an achievement in itself. Since then he has exhibited regularly throughout the world.
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In the grounds of my 'reincarnation' house, I was fortunate to be involved in the placing of one of his slate circles (photo above). Sadly, I never met the great man himself, for I would have loved to have sat quietly and watched the stones being laid in place. My contribution was extremely modest: I only removed the turf and put down the base ready for the circle to be put in position. However, this did mean that the circle appeared as if by magic - and it has remained mysterious and magical ever since. And, as if by magic, the gaps between the stones have filled with leaves and debris and yellow lichens have started to colonise their surface.
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Regular readers of this blog will know of my fascination for stone in all its forms, whether it is the earliest standing stones (and we have our own ancient stone circle here in the Cotswolds, the Rollright Stones), the dry stone walls of the secret valley or placing stone in the garden. But Richard Long's stone work is different to all of these for each piece is meticulously shaped and honed - or left in its natural state - and crafted into position. To really appreciate it, you have to become part of the landscape yourself. When you lie on the ground looking across the surface of his work, it takes on a completely new appearance and meaning.
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When I first came to know and love Richard Long's work, I little dreamt that one day it would inspire me to incorporate land art into one of my own designs. Attached to a beautiful old farmhouse, belonging to a client, is a small, almost bottle shaped, raised area of land surrounded by the remains of a twelfth century moat and mill stream. It is too wild an area in which to create a conventional garden so the plan is to keep it as a simple wild flower area. A very low serpentine turf coverd bank will draw the eye - and, hopefully, the visitor - towards the bottle neck. Careful planting will bring you unwittingly into a living willow tunnel and, at the far end where the land broadens once again, will be a circle. Not a stone circle this time but a meditation circle inspired by the photograph below of children playing. This photograph is from the artist's (or is it sculptor's?) website; all the remaining photo's are mine taken at the reincarnation house. To be redirected there just click and make sure you look at both the Exhibitions and the Sculptures pages.
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As for my new design, work is due to commence at the end of this month and I shall report on progress some time in the future. One thing I am quite certain of is that I will not be asked to hold any exhibitions either in the UK or abroad!
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