Sunday, 27 February 2011

Spring Is Around The Corner!

The first signs of spring are always welcome and especially so after the winter that we have had this time. Frosts arrived early in the season, followed by snow that lay both deep and long, which is unusual for the south of England.
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Winter in the secret valley: sheep wait patiently for food by our little winding river
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The Cotswolds are known, however, for their colder and longer winters compared to the rest of the region. Here, about as far inland as you can be on a small island, we have little benefit from the warming effect of the sea and we are also hill country. Elsewhere may be showing signs of spring but in the secret valley these are still hard to find - an elder twig just breaking into leaf is the only green that I can find so far.

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The aconite wood, 'though, is a sight to behold and has been flowering for a couple of weeks now. How many plants can there be? Surely, tens of thousands. When and why were they planted here, for they are not native to this country. An old country chap told me it used to be called Summer House Woods but there is no sign of a building here and the 'big' house that owns the land is some distance away.

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This snowdrop wood was planted by nuns over a hundred and fifty years ago and is attached to my 'reincarnation' house. Snowdrop woods, unlike aconite ones, are not uncommon but never fail to impress. Even a small group in a garden are eagerly awaited and we have plenty here where they spill out beyond the garden boundary and peep out from amongst the hedgerow that borders the lane.

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The Cornus mas is also flowering now. It grows in our garden against the house wall, facing east. Despite this, it perfoms regularly and is easy to keep pruned to shape. This one, is the variegated leaf variety which is quite slow growing compared to the standard type and so is ideal as a wall shrub. In late summer it carries edible scarlet berries, hence its common name of Cornelian Cherry.

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Also in the garden, I found a single, wild primrose, sheltered by the old garden roller, in flower. Later, the garden, and especially the lawn, will be covered with their flowers. Daffodils, although beginning to flower elsewhere will be a few more weeks before they do up here. But even in the Cotwolds they are showing colour in the warmth of our towns - which makes shopping just a little bit more enjoyable.

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When in town, I was surprised to find that oldest of symbols of spring - the green man. He was standing tall and lofty down a back street unnoticed and forgotten. Closer examination revealed that he was an old column and ball, the remaining one of a pair of stone entrance pillars from some long demolished house. Now covered in ivy, I wondered why it had been left and what was its history.
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Further afield still, I came across a small pond in a field. The croaking of hundreds of frogs drew my attention to it and in the photo below there are over forty heads poking out above the water. As I approached, sensing danger, they fought one another to get below the surface, making the water look as if it was a boiling cauldron. A few days later, when I returned, all was quiet and the surface of the water completely covered in frogspawn. Like the daffodils, it will be some weeks before our secret valley frogs start marching across the lane and entering the house in their quest to reach the lake below our garden.

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Friday, 4 February 2011

Footprints of History

It is a busy time in the garden as the weather at the moment is quite mild and dry. This is an unusual combination for an English winter as warmer winds that come from the Atlantic Ocean also bring rain. It is the bitingly cold weather that comes from Eastern Europe or sweeps down from the Arctic that often brings dryness (and, if lucky, sunshine) with it.
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This photo is here because of the gravel path but the roses do offer a hope of things to come!
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So I have been industrious with my digging, my pruning and my raking. And it is especially with the raking of the gravel paths that I often come across the footprints of history. No more than 10mm across, for they will have been graded along with the stones from whence they came, I find them quite regularly - although you have to train your eye to spot them. These are, I think, Tetrarhynchia, a fossil Brachiopod dating from the Jurassic period 200 million years ago.
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But how did a marine bivalve come to be here high up in the Cotswolds, for the quarry from where the stone came from is several hundred feet above sea level and as far inland as it is possible to be in the British Isles? Most of southern Britain at that time was a vast, warm and shallow sea which, as it gradually drained and compressed created the limestone rocks and shales that give the Cotswolds their beautiful pale coloured stone that many of the local properties are built of.
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Over the millenia , through movement of the Earth's plates, the surface was pushed upwards to form the chain of limestone hills that is renowned for it's beauty and, of which, the secret valley, is a tiny - but very special - part of.
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Sometimes, when I am digging I come across other fossils and, because I am working on the soil, these are much larger than our gravel finds. Usually these are fragments but my best find to date has to be this piece of rock with three Venericor huddled together. These are relatively recent fossils, from the Palaeogene period, just a mere 65 million years old!
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Also quite commonly found in the region are fossilised Sea Urchins which are so unchanged from those today. These also date from around the Jurassic period. My specimens aren't especially good ones for the best have all their markings still in place. If you look carefully, there is a sign of one of the five ribs that most sea urchins have. Locally these fossils, which are quite heavy, are called 'Shepherd's Crowns'. They make good paperweights!
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I only have ever found one ammonite and then, only a small chunk of it. However, this was the very first fossil I ever found when I was still a child, so is my 'very special' one. At the time I had no idea what it was but it is part of the coiled tube that forms the outer shell. The 'shadow' of its ribs can be seen at one end. It would have lived about 200 million years ago.

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This small fossil was given to me as a gift and has been highly polished. It is a Belemnite, a type of squid that lived about 150 million years ago. It came from the Atlas Mountais in northern Africa. Although I love its colouring and smoothness it doesn't give quite the same thrill and sense of awe that finding your own does: how extraordinary to be able to handle something that is of such an incredible age.

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Depending on my mood, finding fossils gives me hope for the planet's future or fills me with despair at what mankind is doing to it. Fortunately, by nature, I am an optimistic person so I like to think that Earth may continue even if the human race ends up as dead as the dinosaurs. Let's hope it continues for it is a very lovely place!
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Indian sandstone paving slabs are so popular at the moment, partly because they look so good for their money. I have reservations about using them for the quality can be very variable and will they stand up to severe cold and frost? We might well know the answer after this winter. I also feel uncomfortable about the labour and air miles involved although I don't know enough about it to make a qualified judgement.
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Fetching a premium and on everyone's shopping list, are the slabs sold at a premium as 'fossilised'. However, they are not true fossils but are created by crystals of manganes oxide growing in cracks of the limestone. 'Pseudofossils' they may be but they do look like the real thing. The fossil equivalent of 'Fool's Gold', perhaps?
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