Saturday, 21 December 2013

A Year in Review 2013: The First Six Months

As I feared, once you reach a certain age, time flies by even quicker than before and that certainly has happened in 2013.  Where has the year gone?  The only consolation is that speaking with young people, they say the same thing.  Perhaps that is a rather sad reflection of modern living for I often found that the time didn't go by quickly enough years ago!  Despite the year having gone by rapidly, it has been a great one with some excitement along the way.

January: it is rapidly becoming a tradition that each New Year's Day some close friends and I go off exploring.  This usually includes a museum and food.  The year before it had been London with a visit to the National Portrait Gallery followed by afternoon tea at my favourite grocers, Fortnum & Mason.  This January it was to the city of Bath with its glorious abbey church where Edgar was crowned King of England in 973AD.  The church has the most exquisite vaulting - it is hard to believe that such fine tracery can be achieved by carving stone.  Bath, which is a World Heritage Site, is famous for its Roman Baths built about a thousand years earlier and which are open to visitors.  A great place to view them from are the Pump Rooms, the imaginary setting of Sheridan's Georgian play, The Rivals.  It was here that we had our champagne tea.
February was a mixed month weather-wise in the secret valley and one post describes the rain lashing against the windows and the trees being thrown around by a winter gale.  Despite that the winter aconites were in full flower advertising the advance of spring and the wild birds were hanging onto the feeders for dear life.  Take away the aconites and we have a carbon copy day as I write this and, although there are no signs of spring yet, we are passing the shortest day which is always encouraging.
March was a strange month too with huge amounts of rain interspersed with wintry weather.  Even stranger was the affect it had upon the secret valley's frog population.  I can only assume that it was because everything was so saturated that, instead of laying their spawn in the small lake that is visible from the cottage, they laid them instead upon the tops of nearby fence posts. They couldn't possibly have survived there anyway but it was sad to see a few days later that they had turned black and 'melted' when a hard frost fell upon them.
April is the month of the Chipping Norton Literary Festival.  I have been on the committee since its inception and it has been gratifying to find that it has rapidly established a good reputation with authors, publishers and festival goers. One of the star attractions for 2013 was Sir Julian Fellowes of Downton Abbey fame.  Because it is a small festival in a small, country town the atmosphere is very relaxed and it is possible to meet the authors for book signings or just a chat as they stroll about 'Chippy'.  This coming year the festival takes place from 24-27 April and tickets go on sale next month - check out the website for more details.
April also saw the launch of my new website www.johnshortlandwriter.com and also the start of my tweeting.  Come and join me @johnshortlandwr

May:  As I am always saying the secret valley is a magical place to live and one of the things that makes it so special is its history. Not the history of history books but the type that goes unrecorded other than by the clues it leaves behind in the landscape.  Here we have a patch of rough ground left uncultivated that is the invisible site of a Bronze Age settlement. Later, almost to within living memory, the lane was a drover's route and, in places, the road has been abandoned to become a green track full of wild flowers and butterflies.  We still refer to one place as the 'white gate' even though it was removed a hundred years ago or more.  It feels special to know that the valley has been lived in and loved for over three thousand years.
It was also a very exciting time as my gardening book was published accompanied by radio and other interviews. The launch party took place a couple of months later.



June is a colourful time of year in gardens and one thing I've always wanted to create is an Iris border.  This is an extravagance of space that few can afford for they are only in flower for a relatively short time.  However, one of my clients liked the idea so the 'rainbow' border was created.  Interest is extended by daffodils and alliums for earlier colour and Japanese anemones, with large flowered clematis behind, for later on.

To read any of the posts referred to above just click on the links, coloured green.




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Sunday, 15 December 2013

Puppy Walking

Whether you love it or hate it, hunting with dogs has been part of the country way of life for millennia: it was mentioned in Greek mythology and must have a much earlier history even than that.  These days in the UK there are many restrictions to hunting with a pack of hounds.  This hasn't prevented the hunts from adapting their practice to continue within the law; many now track a human quarry or laid trail.    This post, however, is not a treatise in support for or against hunting, it is only about one of the most delightful of hound breeds, the Beagle.
Beagles are possibly one of the oldest breeds with records of the type dating back to pre-Norman Conquest days although they did not look as they do now.  By Elizabethan times they were popular miniature dogs small enough to travel comfortably in a pocket.  As fox-hunting grew in popularity during the 18th and 19th centuries there became a need for a larger hound and all but one variety of Beagle became extinct.  The forerunners of today were preserved by a few enthusiasts for hunting rabbits. By the late 1800's hunting hare with beagles had become established and the breed was secure although the rough-coated ones had died out by the First World War.  The breed was much heavier in those early days with coarser features and they still have a tendency to become overweight if not exercised adequately.
There are now sixty Beagle packs in Britain today.  It is a necessity for hounds when kept in packs to become used to human company and experience a wider environment than they would get in kennels from an early age and so Daring and Darkness came to live with us for a while; a procedure known as 'puppy walking.'  Like all puppies they were into absolutely everything and although Darkness was the less inquisitive of the two neither could be described as shy.  With a hunting dog this forward going has to be encouraged although once when out exercising them they came face to face with a hare - their traditional quarry (now illegal) - they seemed baffled.  It is impossible to see the hare in the photo below but it is within fifteen feet of Daring who didn't live up to his name on this occasion.
 
The puppies remained with us for several months until the day came when their hunting instincts began to take over.  Once following a scent, hounds become oblivious to anything else so shouting at them to come to heel has no affect.  It takes nerve to wait for them to return which may be anything up to several hours later.  There is no place for free roaming dogs in sheep country and so it was time for them to be returned to the kennels to join the rest of the pack.  Over the following months we saw them on a number of occasions happy being part of the gang once more.
Despite being great fun to have around, I don't feel that they are the best breed to have as pets - although I realise that there are many beagle owners who will disagree with me.  Their tendency to put on weight, their liking the company of other dogs and especially their tendency to howl being my main reasons.
Their stamina and highly developed scenting ability has made them superb hunting dogs and these traits are put to excellent use as search and rescue dogs.  And, of course, they also make first rate and long-lived cartoon dogs - take a bow, Snoopy!








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Wednesday, 4 December 2013

The Hidden History of the Brendon's

The Brendon Hills, part of the Exmoor National Park, are less well-known than the barren moorland to its west that gives the park its name.  Here the landscape is a patchwork of lush, green fields and of woodlands bordered to the north by the sea.  It is a quiet landscape with only the sounds of birdsong and the occasional farm vehicle to disturb its peace.  It wasn't always like this, however, for during the nineteenth century it was the centre of a great, albeit relatively short-lived, mining venture.  Today, much of this has been forgotten.

The West Somerset Mineral Railway was built to link iron ore mines with the seaport of Watchet for transportation to the steelyards of south Wales.  Much of its route can be walked and there are several ruins, some of national importance, that have been conserved.  One of the most dramatic is the Incline, where trains hauled truckloads of ore - and passengers - up a 1 in 4 steep hillside, climbing 800 feet in just over half a mile.  I have written about this feat of Victorian engineering in an earlier post and this can be found by clicking on the link here.

A ruin less impressive than that of the Incline but no less extraordinary in its day is the Langham Hill Engine House built in 1866.  All that remains now is the footprint of the building but a good idea of what it must have looked like and how it worked can be had from the artist's impression by Anne Leaver shown on the nearby information board.

The engine house was created to draw the iron ore from three separate workings to the surface by sinking a new shaft at Langham Hill.  Powered by steam engines, the ore was pulled up to ground level by trams rising from a depth of up to 650 feet.  The miners who had to descend by ladder were protected from falling by a series of wooden platforms upon which the ladders rested - if they fell they would only drop the length of each ladder, reducing the risk of serious injury.  The steam engines also powered underground pumps to keep the shafts clear of water; this was filtered, stored in reservoirs and reused by the engines - an early example of recycling.  Once the ore was brought to the surface it was tipped into trucks to be carried away by the railway.

Another extraordinary feat of engineering was the aerial tramway that brought iron ore to Langham Hill in buckets from another mine over half a mile away.  A length of the steel cables, which are over four inches in thickness, can be seen coiled by the engine house.  The figures are staggering: the overhead cable was a single, endless 6700 feet length supported on wooden pylons, at times carrying the ore 300 feet above ground level and crossing a 2000 feet wide valley.  No wonder the miners called it 'the flying machine'.

It is hard to imagine, when visiting the engine house now, the noise, bustle and industry that took place here just 150 years ago.  Two hundred miners and their families, mostly from Wales came to live and work here, yet within fifty years all mining had  ceased.  The engine house only survived for ten years: its engine and even the house itself, dismantled and reused in mines elsewhere.  The aerial tramway lasted an even shorter time being in use for only three years before new transportation technology overtook it. 

Today all is silent, the site surrounded by trees and ferns.  For many years the remains of the mines remained hidden until the combined efforts of a number of individuals and groups fought to preserve them.  The West Somerset Mineral Railway Project came into being and has succeeded in doing so; it has also created a permanent exhibition housed in the museum in Watchet.  Its research of the history of the mines is available online - visit their website here.


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