Thursday, 28 October 2010

Invasion of the Ladybirds

If ladybirds landing on you are traditionally a sign of good fortune to come, I wonder what the latest invasion of hundreds of them coming to hibernate in my bedroom means? Probably not much as I have evicted the majority of them! However, there is something rather special when a wild creature, however small, chooses to associate closely with you and without fear.
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Now I appreciate that a small bug like creature is not exactly prone to a shaking attack of nerves when a human face peers closely at it - not even mine - but they must have some sense of concern when we recite the children's rhyme "Ladybird, ladybird fly away home", surely?
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Having realised that they are likely to get 'crunched' once the window is shut, they moved further indoors following one another in single file. Of some concern, was the number of Harlequin ladybirds, a foreign invader originally from the Far East but brought here to Britain on plant imports via the USA. These only arrived in the country as recently as 2004 and are now found in every English county, much of Wales and beginning to colonise Scotland. Of the four ladybirds in the picture above only the top one is our native Seven-spot Ladybird.
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I know it's a bedroom but I really don't think I want this Harlequin to perform in front of the neighbours! As, to my knowledge, they don't hybridise with our native species I suspect that this Seven-spot was about to become a tasty snack. This photo really makes you appreciate the difference in size between the two species.
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Having reached a suitable corner they begin to jostle for position, gradually forming a tight clump where they remain during the colder days and nights. Strangely, the central heating system has no effect on this dormancy, whereas a return to milder conditions outside makes the colony disperse around the room to reform at a later time.
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Now a tight cluster, these groups began to hold several hundred individuals. It was then (and without even bothering to take a photograph, very remiss) that the eviction process began until just a few dozen - which we consider manageable and charming - remained. Despite claiming not to be remotely superstitious, for safety's sake I did recite the traditional chant.
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"Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home, for your house is on fire and your children will burn"
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Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Exmoor: The Blue Ball Inn

Autumn has been at its best the last week or so with blue skies and warm sunshine by day, the perfect weather for long walks. And afterwards, as the evening chill sets in, what can be better than to laze contentedly in front of a blazing log fire, losing your thoughts in the flickering flames? This is what I have been doing the past ten days.
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And where better than to do this than on Exmoor, the 270 square mile national park in England's West Country? I have known this place for over 40 years and it's dramatic scenery never tires with the passing years. The coastal area between Lynmouth and Porlock, where the open moorland meets clifftop and plunges 800 feet to the sea is the most dramatic of all. And the tiny village of Countisbury can lay claim, in my opinion, to have the best views on Exmoor.
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I made a decision when I started this blog that I would not go commercial - either for my own garden based business or for anyone else. Somehow, it just seems to put a different slant on your writing. However, I am always being asked where I stay on my Exmoor visits and I am more than happy to break the rule on this occasion. There can be no better place to spend your time than at the Blue Ball Inn, situated in the heart of the village.

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The Blue Ball Inn, which dates back to the 13th century, was originally a coaching inn where horses and travellers rested after the exhausting 1 in 4 climb up Countisbury Hill from Lynmouth. Today it still welcomes travellers, whether it is for just a drink, a meal or to stay in one of their sixteen bedrooms.

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The building both inside and out is dominated by a vast and ancient inglenook fireplace and chimney, so big that you can look up it and see daylight. It is a great place to relax and unwind with a pint of locally brewed ale and is the hub of the inn.
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The bar, with its low ceilings, blackened beams and loads of character, is a busy area but there are also several other places to sit. Each has its own fireplace and comfortable chairs, ideal if you want to find a quieter space to read or plan the next day's walks.
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It is not just the beer that is produced locally. The restaurant, which serves food all day, is committed to offering a wide choice of menu, much of it sourced from the area - they even rear their own rare breed pork. During my stay, I never once had the same meal twice (although I wish it would have been possible to have forced down a second helping of their spare ribs they were so delicious). The chips are the best in Britain. By the time dinner was over, I was usually too tired to continue drinking in the bar and would disappear to bed. The bedrooms, which have all the usual facilities, are comfortable and clean and, after so much exercise and fresh air, sleep guaranteed.

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Awake and refreshed and after a hearty breakfast, walks can start from the door and can vary in both their length and the steepness of hill. Ours varied from twenty minutes to five or six hours. With instant access to heather moorland, ancient woodlands, rushing rivers and the spectacular clifftop walks with its views across the sea to Wales, you are spoilt for choice. (Exmoor is, of course, great dog walking country and the Blue Ball welcomes them too). If you are lucky and walk quietly, there is a very good chance that you will see the wild Exmoor ponies or the herds of Red Deer - we saw both within a mile of the pub.
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But it is not just good food and drink, comfortable rooms or amazing views that make a good holiday. It is people. Phil, Jackie and son Nick, the owners of the Blue Ball, and all of their staff without exception, do everything possible to ensure that your stay is memorable. The 'locals' too, for this is still very much the village pub, are very welcoming and friendly - where else would you meet someone who lends you a book to return "when you next come down"? And I have never spent such a riotous evening as with them all at the Harvest auction, held in the pub. Apart from bidding for a crate of the local beer, I also have managed to get a days hawking on neighbouring Dartmoor. I was too slow to get a day's salmon fishing on the local Lyn river - but that, of course, gives me an excuse to visit again next year. I have already booked!
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Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Life Behind Baas: A Story of Sheep Betrayal

I love sheep! There is something about them. They are supposed to be stupid but I've known some clever ones in my time (like I've known lots of people who claim to be clever .....). They have exquisite faces, full of charm with a look in their eyes that just beg for a little more human understanding.
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What more can I say about the joys of building a relationship with a sheep or, preferably, many sheep? They smell nice, especially when wet. They're cuddly (when dry) once they've allowed you to become more intimate with them, an especial priviledge.
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They have lovely voices - varying in tone from deep bass through alto to soprano - and there's usually quite a few castratos among them too. Each morning, as soon as I step outside into the garden, I am greeted by uplifted heads and welcoming bleats, a sort of dawn chorus, an ovine welcome to another day. And as I enter their field to feed the bantams who are kept there, they gather around me pushing and jostling to have their noses scratched, their ears rubbed and to tell me the latest gossip and goings-on in their sheepy world.
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Now there is one special reason that I haven't mentioned yet about why I'm so fond of sheep: they taste great, well roasted with lashings of gravy and mint sauce. And that is the quandry. For the reason that these are here in the loveliest field in the secret valley is not for favouritism (as they think) - it is for the pot. And as they try to eat the poultry food I explain that they have no need for such processed feed, for they have the sweetest grass and the freshest river water, when replete they can rest in the shade of the finest trees, the secret valley can offer.
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As if to make me feel even more gulity, they wander off to the empty, upturned feeders. Somehow, even the fattest ones can get inside them. For them, life behind bars is nothing more than a defiant gesture: they little know that judgement has been passed and they have been sentenced to death.
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To end on an upbeat note, the tups have been put in with the stock ewes this week. Soon enough, the new season's lambs will be born - something we always look forward too.
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