Thursday, 31 May 2012

Around the World with Queen Elizabeth

Last October my partner and I were surprised and delighted to receive an invitation from the Duke of Edinburgh to a reception at Windsor Castle.  It seemed unreal passing through the State Entrance, walking up the Grand Staircase to the magnificently restored St. George's Hall and spending several hours being able to explore the historic rooms at leisure.  To read more about that evening, click here.

This weekend, the whole country is in a Royal frenzy as there is a four day holiday break from routine to celebrate the Queen's Diamond Jubilee.  Everywhere, there is red, white and blue bunting and Union flags flying in preparation for street parties, village dances and fetes.  For many of us, the Queen represents more than just our Country, partly because, having been there for sixty years, the majority of us have no memory or knowledge of any other monarch.  She has always been there, always consistent and that is quite a comfort when the news is full of political and monetary chaos throughout the world.

Windsor Castle is not just a grand, old building; it is also a much loved home to the Royal Family, so it was only natural that it would play a lead role in the Jubilee celebrations.  "Around the World in 60 Years" was an extravaganza that celebrated not just the Queen's achievement (Queen Victoria, the present Queen's great-great-grandmother is the only other monarch that reigned for over 60 years) but also
a record of the many countries that she has visited during that time.  When we had the opportunity to be at Windsor for this once-in-a-lifetime treat we leapt at the chance.



The performance, which took place in the private grounds of the castle, began with the entrance of the Household Cavalry and King's Troop, which is always guaranteed to whip up a fervour of patriotism.  Behind the arena, the stage was a massive recreation of the facade of Buckingham Palace. 

The arrival of the Queen and Prince Philip brought everyone to their feet.  The British don't display their patriotism openly very frequently but when the band played the National Anthem, "God Save the Queen", there were many - men and women - whose voices faltered over the words "long to reign over us"....  For me, the raising of the Royal Standard above the mock Buckingham Palace, which is only ever flown in the presence of the Queen, was my emotional downfall, for I am always aware how fortunate I am to live in a free democracy:  one half of my family did not and perished because of it.  My friends tease me, saying that now my family have lived here for 100 years, I will soon be a 'proper' Englishman!





Over 550 horses and 1000 people took part in the Pageant.  Performers from every continent and the numerous countries the Queen has visited, displayed their horsemanship, danced or sang.

  

North America was represented by cowboys, by native Americans and by the Canadian Mounties. The Mounties are always very popular with the British and played a leading role in the Pageant. They also mounted guard at (the real) Buckingham Palace, a great honour (click here).



 
Two hundred men and women from the Omani Royal Cavalry were a colourful addition, wearing their green, burgundy and gold colours and riding barefoot.


 

Towards the end of the evening  all of the Queen's own horses were paraded - or in the case of her racehorses, galloped - through the arena.  Even her ponies from Balmoral in Scotland were brought to Windsor.

The finale was the most incredible sight as all 550 horses and the performers came into the arena together along with the Royal State Coach. 




We were one of the last to leave the arena and as we sat we were noticed by the Cook Islanders who performed a 'haku' especially for us.  It was very exciting to have our own private performance and made our evening even more memorable.


And just when the evening could hardly be even more magical, we stepped outside to see the castle lit up in  a dark sky.  Breathtaking!


My photographic skills couldn't cope with the extraordinary horsemanship of the Cossack riders - to see them rehearsing for their performance, click on the link here.



The Diamond Jubilee Pageant "Around the World in 60 Years" is to be shown this coming Sunday on television: ITV 6.30pm - 8.30pm.


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Saturday, 12 May 2012

Still Falls The Rain

The title of this post is taken from the poem by Edith Sitwell, that most eccentric of twentieth century English poets.  I am using it for its literal sense, for the rain just won't stop falling, whereas Sitwell wrote Still Falls The Rain as her response to the London Blitz in the 1940's.

It has not been an easy gardening year.  We were bracing ourselves for the coldest and snowiest winter ever, for after two years of freezing temperatures and snow at greater depths than for a decade or more, we were warned of worse to come ..... it didn't.  Instead we had a relatively mild time of it but with virtually no rain whatsoever.  Then came March:  temperatures in the 70's and day after day of unbroken sunshine and the garden couldn't work out what to do next.  Some plants flowered earlier than normal whereas others refused to break out of their winter dormancy.  And still no rain; the little river that winds its way through the header of this blog and the secret valley ran lower than midsummer and by the old sheepwash it was almost possible to walk across it in hiking boots.

Then came April and the day water shortages and a hosepipe ban were announced.  All the hose reels were wound up to be stored away and we worried about how we were to keep the parched ground alive.

We did not need to worry for, reminiscent of the day in the 1980's when Michael Fish, the weather forecaster said "What hurricane?  We don't have them in this country...." (the next morning half of England's trees had been flattened), the rain started to fall.  And it hasn't stopped falling.  We have the occasional sunny interlude when you could almost think it is spring but, for the most part, the skies remain leaden and heavy.  Day after depressing day it is dark and gloomy with a cold northerly wind blowing and the rain lashes against the window panes.



The ground, so hard from months of drought, could not absorb the deluge and the water, so desperately needed, runs down the lanes and over the fields and banks into the river.  Our pretty little tinkling stream has become a torrent and the sheepwash island, coloured golden with  its Kingcups in full bloom, has disappeared from view completely.  Opposite the sheepwash on the other side of the lane, the water is running off the hill and new springs have appeared where they haven't been seen in years.



The secret valley is flooding and looks more like how it should have appeared in winter.  The sheep and their lambs have been moved to safer pastures and the pastoral scene of a few weeks ago has all but gone.  Gales have accompanied the worst of the downpours creating their own havoc and the old willow pollards, heavy with top growth are splitting and falling.  The damage, although it looks devestating, will not affect them too much for they will regrow once the broken timber has been cleared, for this is nature's own way of pollarding them.



In the meantime,  we watch the flood water rise all around us.  Our little stone cottage, built in the 1850's, sits safe, high above the river, which snakes around two sides of the building.



As for gardening, weeds continue to grow for they have adapted to the extremes of the English climate over millenia.  The nurtured plants of the flower border struggle and produce some oddities.  The tulips that usually look bedraggled after just one shower, have remained resilient and daffodils that have normally finished weeks ago are still in bloom, thanks to the cool conditions.  The wet weather has also benefitted the cowslips and the bluebells and they seem even more intense in colour if, in the case of bluebells, that is possible. A quick look around the secret valley at the trees also shows contradiction:  some are in full leaf and others - almost 50% of them - are still to show their leaves so have a wintry look about them.


Tulip 'Peppermint Stick'

It has been a dry and sunny day today and tomorrow is also supposed to be quite pleasant.  The forecast is for more rain to come and the cool conditions to continue at least until the beginning of June.  And when I wake up on Monday and hear the rain hitting the bedroom windows, as forecast, my first awareness will be to hear in my mind the haunting voice of Edith Sitwell saying "Still falls the rain, still falls the rain ......"


To listen to Edith Sitwell reciting Still Falls The Rain click on the link below:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b6_2x948EEw



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Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Hedgerow Update 1

When I wrote my initial post on the ancient hedgerow that leads uphill out of the secret valley I intended to update it on a monthly basis (click here).  What a failed idea that has proved to be!  For March 10th  was as hot a day as any summer's and that, coupled with a very dry winter, created the worst drought for many years.  The day that I had intended to walk the hedge (and also the day that a hose pipe ban was announced) the heavens opened and we have had torrential rain ever since.  I have been soaked to the skin most days because of work - I had no intention of a second soaking whilst carrying out hedge surveying upon my return home.

A break in the clouds, however, allowed me to sprint up the lane snapping away with the camera moments before the next deluge. No time to marvel at the way nature responds to climate or to look carefully to see what species of plants might be new to my eyes.  The only wildlife I saw was a solitary snail, pale lemon in colour and rather pretty - if you can describe a snail as such - which dropped off it's grass blade perch the moment I got the camera in focus.  I'm sure I heard it giggling in the undergrowth.
Here is what I did see.
Cowslips
Cowslips (Primula veris) are a great favourite of mine bringing back memories of early school for ours had a play area that was carpeted with them.  Years ago no-one worried about picking great bunches of them or digging some up for the garden which we all did yet the numbers there didn't seem to diminish.  However, overpicking (or perhaps spraying roadside verges) meant that the cowslip became a scarce plant.  Happily, they are now seen sporadically along the Cotswold lanes although not on my old school playground which became a high density housing estate in the '80's. Along our hedge, cowslips appear in small numbers which, hopefully, will increase over the years.  Further up the valley a field grazed only by sheep and never sprayed is a yellow carpet at this time of year and on warm, still days, the faint smell of honey wafts around transporting me back more years than I care to admit to.

    Cowslip meadow in the secret valley

Primroses

The last few primroses are still in bloom, quite late for this time of year and no doubt, like some of the daffodils, lasting longer because of the cool, damp weather.  Primula vulgaris, their botanical name, sounds like a misnomer for their is nothing vulgar about them, for every part of a primrose is pretty, whether it is the palest lemon of their petals, the deeper yellow throat or the fresh green of their leaves.  Even the ribbing and lines of their veins create attractive patternss and textures.  Vulgaris does, of course, mean common - there is nothing common about them in appearance either!


The hot March had an odd effect on plants. Some revelled in it, throwing caution to the wind and paraded their summer finery early, whereas others seemed to remember the old saying about not casting a clout 'til May is out. Proven right, when cold returned in April, they now seem reluctant to even expose a leaf and, as a result, the hedgerow is bright green  in places, yet bare and wintry looking in others.
 Field Maple

Field Maple is a classic old hedgerow plant.  Left to grow untouched it makes a medium sized tree of, to my mind, simple but great beauty.  However, it is usually trimmed to make a reasonably dense, twiggy barrier.  Like all maples the flowers and leaves emerge together but I had never noticed before the rich mahogany colour of the leaf buds. Acer campestre.

Ground Ivy

 A plant so common and so small as to be overlooked, Ground Ivy (not related to ivy but to mint)has to be viewed on hands and knees to see its quiet beauty: tiny, mauve, hooded trumpets darkening at the throat.  According to my old herbals it was used for all sorts of ailments from the uterus to inflamed eyes and everything in between.  Glechoma hederacea, in a greyish variegated form is often used in hanging baskets where it is seen trailing in ugly, thick ribbons.  Leave it where it belongs - trailing over the ground at the foot of a hedgerow.  Perhaps it should be used in the garden in this way? 
 Jack-by-the-Hedge

Jack-by-the-Hedge or Garlic Mustard is a common plant and quite a useful addition to early spring salads for its shredded leaves have a mild garlic taste.  In the photo above it grows along with stinging nettles and the fine leaves of Cleavers or Goose-grass.  It is the food plant of the Orange Tip Butterfly which is quite regularly seen throughout the secret valley, although scarce so far this spring due to weather conditions.  Occasionally they fly into the house and require rescuing - not always as easy as in this photo!
 Orange Tip Butterfly - only the male is coloured orange

Bluebells with White Dead-Nettle

Bluebells, Hyacinthoides non-scriptus, are another of the ancient woodland indicators (click here for more details of this term) and they flower the whole length of the hedgerow.  In the Chiltern Hills, the area where I spent most of my life, the beechwoods are renowned for their Bluebell carpets (photo below).  Here, they grow more sparsely, with the occasional white flowered sport growing amongst them. In the photo above, it is the white flowered dead-nettle they mingle with.  The dead-nettle, Lamium album, is not related to the true nettle and has no sting, just an unpleasant smell when the leaves are crushed.  In the garden it is a nuisance with a white, running root, quite thick and brittle unlike the stinging nettle's yellow, fibrous root system - a useful way to tell them apart if uncertain, apart from the sting, of course.

A bluebell wood in the Chiltern Hills in Spring

 Burdock leaves
The large leaves of Burdock, Arctium minus, are already forming rosettes.  It will be a while before they send up their spikes of lilac flowers, reminiscent of those of the thistle and even longer before the troublesome round seedheads, the burs, stick to clothing and She-dog.

The secret valley in flood

It was at this point that the heavens opened once again giving me just time to take a snap of the little winding river.  It's clear, sparkling waters have been transformed by rain to a swirling, brown muddy spate that has now burst its banks spreading out across the valley.


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