Monday, 26 March 2012

The Constant Drip

When I was a small child I was traumatised by the sound of water, even a dripping tap would trigger nightmares of drowning.  This was not because my life had ever been at risk, although it could be argued that my afterlife was: it was down to baptism by total immersion.  My soul might have been saved by water but it was years before water became something that I would delight in, rather a problem for a lad that was brought up on the banks of the Thames, that great English river that flows sluggishly from its source to London and the North Sea beyond, a distance of 215 miles.

                                        
                                                   The River Thames at Marlow

It was not until, as a young teenager visiting the West Country, I came across clear, rocky bottomed streams that were so unlike the silty bottomed, muddy waters of the Thames and the smaller brooks back home.  At first the sight and the sound of their fast flow rather unnerved me but there was a swift and dramatic change once I discovered the joys of splashing about, ‘tickling’ for trout and generally getting soaked. Not only could I not get enough of them, I ended up living beside one here in the secret valley.  Our river, to be truthful, is a compromise: it likes to believe it is of world class comparable with the Amazon or the Zambezi as it winds through the landscape in great (or in reality, miniature) curves and sweeps.  Sometimes it is slow moving half hidden by lush foliage that spills over its banks but in other places it is as fast running and noisy as a Devon stream as it gurgle and clinks its way over rock and pebble.

Our little river in the secret valley

                                        
    In winter, our river doesn't look quite so inviting!

Recently I was staying high in the mountains of Snowdonia.  The house that we were in had to its right, a larger river crashing noisily downwards and, to its left, a much smaller gully with an equally fast flow.  ‘Our’ house, which inreality belongs to a friend, is not exactly standing on an island; more it is the solid filling of a watery sandwich. The main river, the term is used loosely for it is even more jumpable over than the one back in the secret valley, tumbles down the mountainside in a series of rocky chasms interspersed with quieter small pools.


One of the nicest aspects of returning to a place time after time is that certain things become so familiar, whether it is buildings or the wider scenery does not matter.  This is good for once you stop looking at the overall picture, the detail becomes more noticeable and things that would be overlooked if you only ever visited once begin to stand out.  Here there is little in the way of buildings, apart from the numerous ruins that stand as ghosts to a time when the hills were more densely populated with miners and farm workers.  On my morning walk and musing on how terrified I had once been by the sound of water, I began to notice the change in pitch and volume which alters constantly as you pass by.  Where the water falls several feet, not surprisingly the noise is at its greatest but, even there, it can be a deep sound or a lighter one, depending on the rate of flow and whether it lands on rock, water or pebble.

Then there are the waterslides: these can be steep or barely inclined, narrow or wide, fast or slow flowing.  Whichever they are, for me they are the most visually exciting of all with their water moving effortlessly, literally sliding along the surface and their ‘shushing’ sound building up to a more dramatic crescendo as the rock bed alters in character once more.


       A massive waterslide on Exmoor .....


                                                            ..... and a smaller one in Snowdonia

And then, of course, there is the sound that once traumatised me but that I now find the most fascinating of all, perhaps because they entice you to explore: they draw you further into their world, often a secret one.  The sound of dripping.  Sometimes it is obvious where it is coming from and where it is landing but often it is a sound that demands you to seek it out and then, not infrequently, only one half of the equation can be solved, if you can find the source you cannot find the landing place or vice versa.

Higher up the mountain is an old disused slate mine, long abandoned and with its shaft open for all to explore. Little natural light enters the low tunnel entrance and unable to see far inside there is only the sound of water seeping through the roof landing in the shallow water that collects in the passage below.  Here the sounds are as varied as those of a xylophone, the music made being both enchanting and unnerving; it is both welcoming and threatening at the same time. 



Not a place for the faint-hearted!

I may have got over my old phobia of scary water sounds but, I have to admit there is still one place that makes me shudder.  Just up the track beyond the mine there is a patch of grass and moss that has to be crossed and here, if you pause, you can hear the sound of fast moving water and the crash of a waterfall but there are none in sight.  The sound comes from below ground under your feet – childhood anxieties rise if I loiter here and as I continue my walk I notice, with wry amusement, that it is at an increased pace.


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Saturday, 10 March 2012

Hedgerow History and a New Project

One of the greatest and most picturesque, natural aspects of lowland Britain is its patchwork of fields divided by neatly clipped hedgerows.  In hill country, or where there is a wealth of stone, the fields are divided by dry stone walls and the Cotswolds are renowned as much for these as for the limestone cottages and houses built of the same material.  Here, domestic and farm buildings merge into one with the landscape for, as the fields were cleared of stone, it was natural to use it as a building material. 

The overgrown hedge on the left; the drystone wall starts a little further up on the right of our little country lane 

However, the Cotswolds also have their fare share of hedgerows and these often go unnoticed - overshadowed by the craftsmanship, colour and texture of the old walls.  In the secret valley we are fortunate for we have both: outside our little cottage - also built of stone 160 years ago - one side of the lane is bordered by a hedge, the other a dry stone wall.  At a glance, the hedgerow is unremarkable whereas the wall attracts attention for its weathered appearance and moss encrusted stones.  But not all is as it seems.


 The drystone wall was probably built only a couple of hundred years ago

The wall was probably built at the time of the great land enclosures, when large areas of England were partitioned, the ground cleared and 'improved' to grow crops (or here, in the Cotswolds, more likely wool) and may not be more than a couple of hundred years old - 'new' to us Brits.   However the hedge, shabby and overgrown in places, could well be a relic of the ancient wildwood, the forest that once covered most of lowland Britain in the days of pre-history before man started cutting it down. 'Our' hedge would almost certainly have been part of the Wychwood Forest, a royal hunting ground, for written records go back to the time of the Domesday Book of 1086.  As the forest was cleared (for more details click here) to make way for fields, it was easier to leave strips standing than to create new dividers. 


In places, the hedgerow is barely recognisable for trees have grown to huge proportion

How do we know that it is an ancient hedgerow and not one planted at the time of the enclosures?  There is an accepted formula for dating them known as Hooper's Law: the number of tree and shrub species found in a thirty metre section x 100 is equal to the age of the hedge.  It is normal practice to take three thirty metre sample lengths and apply an average for greater accuracy.  There is also a second method of deciding if the hedge is of ancient origin: by the types of wild flowers that grow in it.  Certain species are very slow to spread, or perhaps only would normally grow in certain conditions such as woodland shade.  These key species are known as ancient woodland indicators and we have a number of them growing at the foot of our hedge.


 Bluebells are an ancient woodland indicator.  Here their new leaves emerge at the foot of the hedge - it will be several weeks before they flower

What is even more remarkable is that the plants tell us what is old and what is new hedge with such accuracy that it is possible to follow the old even after it has left the roadside. For our little lane that winds uphill as it leaves the secret valley to join the main road ('Turnpike') is also part old and part new.  Before the Turnpike was built in the late 1700's, the lane beyond our house took a sharp turn left and crossed the fields, it's way now marked only by sunken turf and yes, you've guessed it, also by the old hedge and its associated flora.

 
 The 'old' road had been trodden for centuries by countless generations of drovers moving their cattle and sheep to market.  It was probably still used after the opening of the turnpike in the late 1700's to avoid paying the tolls

I always consider March to be the start of the gardening year, the month when nature turns its back on winter and spring moves rapidly forwards.  Leaf buds burst, seedlings germinate and the first of the flowers remind you that long, hot days are not too far away.  It is the same with the plants that are beyond our garden gate.   And so on our first really warm, sunny day of 2012 I have decided to embark on a new project: to catalogue and photograph a year in the life of our hedge on a month by month basis.  Watch this space!

In places, the ancient hedgerow is still tightly clipped and, over time, has become very wide

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