Megalith in the mud

February 16, 2020

Three tons of granite heading south

I have an urge, is it childish, or is it ancestral, to stand long stones on end. It’s certainly not original. In fact stones-on-end are about the only evidence we have of neolithic tastes. The more trouble it took, apparently, the better. Look at Stonehenge.

We moved a handsome stone from Wales down to our garden in Essex, and reluctantly left it there when we moved to London. We had fixed it too firmly. Now we are in the process of moving a larger one (the first was 11 feet long; this is 15) to dignify ‘our’ garden in the New Forest. Last week we reclaimed it from deep in the woods, where for years it has been serving as a bridge over the fast-flowing Afon Dwynant.

I’m afraid the collateral damage will take a year to two to mend. Our future menhir was spanning a gulf over a torrent , hemmed in by tall firs. How do you grab a hold of a heavy object at right angles to where you are? The answer is a huge tractor equipped with a ‘bucket.’ The tractor itself is 10 feet wide, and weighs, with its articulated arm, 17 tons. To say it leaves traces is an understatement. We had to debranch or totally demolish a score of Sitka spruce to give it passage – not a process for delicate feelings. The sheer noisy brutality of it grinding and crashing through the forest would melt a snowflake at half a mile. I admit I revelled in it, as a hundred horsepower and ingenious hydraulics achieved what would have taken workers with only rollers and levers half a year. The only way to get it to the road half a mile away was to drag it sliding through the (abundant) mud on the end of a chain (having snapped three stout straps). Now it’s loaded on a trailer for the journey south.

The Road to Wales

January 29, 2020

The end of the road, near Dolgellau

We’re off to Wales in the morning; a journey we make four times a year. Boots in the car, a scratch picnic just in case, clothes for one evening out and three probably wet days. Out of London past Westfield, the mammoth shopping centre I’ve never penetrated, onto the A40, past Hendon aerodrome, where Uncle Pat taught RAF pilots, and was the first person to take off, fly round and land with a blanked-out windscreen, on instruments alone.

You’re soon in the woods, or apparent woods, where the tree-planting to screen the new motorway has come of age. An unnoticed climb through the Chilterns until suddenly a deep chalk cutting reveals the rest of England, or at least the broad Thames Valley, stretching off to the north. Oxford, Banbury, Warwick seem to be among unremarkable fields and occasional herds. It’s amazing how empty England is…. .until the lorries thicken, gantries come up one after another: Birmingham, M6 north, airport, NEC, and England is suddenly modern and unfriendly. The M6 Toll Road is a luxury break, then more queues until the M54 cuts loose, heads west, and you feel you’re leaving it all behind. Telford, signs for Shrewsbury, across the sluggish Severn and the signs say Wales. And we see it. There is a grey hill on the horizon that is not English-shaped. Left at the roundabout for Welshpool, the road narrows, and now its 50 miles of bends and steeper, greener hills, and sheep instead of cows, and bigger beeches, then hills high enough for heather. Miles of bends behind trundling caravans, grey villages with ARAF/SLOW painted on the road and names too long to read as you drive through.

The windscreen wipers are going, the houses are scattered and the hills rise above the car windows. The river below the road is black and white with foam, then the climb begins, a high waterfall to the right, winding into bare turf and rock, sheep and heather and bracken to a pass that changes everything. Light floods from under black clouds to the west, Cader Idris crouches grey in grey gauze through the raindrops. The road swerves down and down towards the sea. We’re ready for the orderly market square of Dolgellau, its trim charcoal stone shining with rain. It feels like home.

Hush

January 14, 2020

Cabin cruises on Grasmere, 4 x 4s in Tilberthwaite…. The Lakes are in an uproar about inclusiveness. Nobody goes there, apparently, who isn’t white, middle-class, and probably male as well. What the Lake District needs is visitors of all ages, races, genders, socio-economic classes, religious affiliations, blah, blah, blah. Not just people who have read about them, looked at maps, and have a taste for scenery and silence.

Silence. Is it elitist, racist, or anything more than just noisist to want to get away from intrusive sounds? Irrelevant sounds; that’s the point. Wind, birdsong, sheep, even a tractor across the valley are the natural sounds of the countryside. Transistors and revving engines are intrusions.

Forestry is admittedly noisy – occasionally. Chainsaws and bulldozers are no friends of quiet enjoyment. But they only break the silence in working hours during felling and thinning operations. Not at weekends, and for limited and predictable times.

On our hillsides in Snowdonia we have narrow gates with stones to frustrate off-roaders. We have signs that say Dim Modurs, and don’t often see or hear intruders. But we are far off the beaten track and our terrain would seem tame to serious petrolheads. In the lakes, where millions go to breathe deep of mountain air and cock their ears at country sounds, can anyone argue that the general good is enhanced by revving motors?

An iris with claws?

January 1, 2020

The first flower appeared on Christmas Eve, just before we left for the country: a mauve miracle, pale and light-reflecting, with the gold details of a brooch. A wide-open, laid-right- back IrIs. I tweeted (one has to do something to express joy) “A just-in-time Christmas present from God”.

When we got home three days later the little bed in the front garden was thronged with them, a dozen pale lavender brooches looking up at me, and another dozen tiny pouting buds. Flowers are expressionless. They weren’t smiling, just being. Being what the infinitely strange process of evolution has made them – just for now.

Nothing stops evolving. In millenia to come Iris unguicularis will need a new name. It had an old one, Iris stylosa, but taxonomic wisdom saw through that, back to the first time it was described and named, in 1789. Its godfather, Jean-Marie Poiret, was a French priest fascinated by what was then called Numibia, now Algeria, its barbaric culture and its plants unknown in France. His account was published in the year the French Revolution reached its savage climax.

Poiret, with a botanist’s eye for a plant’s distinguishing features, used a Greek word that means ‘sharp-clawed’ – an improbable name for such a soft and delicate flower. He was looking at the petals, which with a lot of imagination do end in a point – though hardly a sharp-clawed one. By the rules of botany, though, his momentary analogy of petal and claw is fixed for ever. He got there first. Where I wonder will evolution take it next? Will it evolve in its arid habitat some new distinctive trait? That will be a problem for a taxonomist a million years hence. And why does it flower unpredictably in bursts in mid-winter? EA Bowles, who looked deep into his favourite flowers, dissected a flower with a razor and discovered that the style, the vital female organ that carries the pollen to the ovary, runs all the way up the flower’s long stem. The ovary is right down at ground level, protected among the long leaves. Hence ‘stylosa’. Perhaps Poiret didn’t know this.

Stand them a round

December 17, 2019

It wasn’t easy to buy Daphne bholua of the approved cultivar, Jacqueline Postill, and I wasn’t sure growing it would be any easier. Why was I so keen – and clearly not alone? It flowers when you need it most, in mid-winter like Sarcococca, its scent is delicious, and year round its shiny dark upright shape is a serious presence in the garden. Besides, all the best gardens have one; at Exbury there is a whole grove of lusty suckers you can smell a furlong off.

Anyway, growing it in this shady London garden has not been a problem. Until the slugs found it. Would slugs like its quite leathery leaves? They haven’t eaten anything else in this bed, but they’ve shredded the daphne while my back was turned. Where on earth do they live, these little critters? Now I’ve played the genial host to them with a jam-jar of Stella Artois, fifteen or twenty are afloat in the beer. I shall keep on buying rounds until poor Jacqueline has recovered, though I don’t expect many flowers this winter.

The daphne that makes up for it is Daphne odora Aureomarginata. It seems odd that a variegated form of an evergreen should be a better doer than the plain version, but it’s true in this case. Our five year old plant is now over four feet high and is just coming into flower, which it will keep up for months. I’m afraid I killed its cousin, Eternal Fragrance, by planting in a dry bed in full sun. And what happened, I wonder, to the deciduous daphne that was once all the rage in gardens of the Verey era, D. x burkwoodii ‘Somerset’? I haven’t seen it for ages. Perhaps it’s one of those plants that are propagated so often that they somehow become reluctant to grow. But then I’ve heard that my favourite summer clematis, Perle d’Azur, is getting sulky, when apparently nurseries simply find that its nodes are too far apart to get an economical number of cuttings from a stock plant.

Viewpoint

December 7, 2019

The ugly word ‘overtourism’ made it into the O.E.D in 2018. The uglier fact has been with us for longer. London taxi drivers have been complaining about visitors who ‘bring their sandwiches’ (and spend nothing) for years. Because the crowds usually gather in very specific places (other than ones used as film sets) they can be seen as local problems. Is St Mark’s Square, the Spanish steps, the Charles Bridge in Prague, or, nearer to home, Kings Parade in Cambridge just a nightmare for the locals? The coffee shops are unlikely to complain. Local residents feel powerless. Nor are the obvious suggestions – ‘go somewhere else?’, ‘discover your own beauty spot’ likely to gain much headway. By the time you start ticketed time-limited visits the spontaneity and magic have long gone. But the traffic has come to stay.

I was invited to talk the other night to The Friends of Queens’ Green in Cambridge. (The plural ‘queens’ is correct, by the way: two Tudor queens founded the college.) My subject was the trees on the Backs – the parklike space so-called because the river Cam flows past the backs of seven colleges. Historically the riverside was taken up with kitchen gardens, orchards, workshops and washing greens, while the river was a busy commercial route crowded with barges. Just behind Queens’ was a little port with warehouses on common land – the one part of the Backs not owned and controlled by a college. The city owns Queens’ Green and apparently has designs on it. A bus station has been mentioned. It is a very sensitive area; hence the Friends.

Whatever the plans for Queens’ Green, Queens Road is the only road west of the river, across from the colleges, and thus an integral part of the Backs. Inevitably it serves as part of the only sort of Ring Road Cambridge has. The traffic along it is constant. Furthermore at one point it has what everyone calls the ‘iconic’ view, the view that serves as a symbol for Cambridge, for King’s, sometimes even for universities in general: across the meadow known as Scholars’ Piece, and the river itself, King’s chapel, a great gothic vertical, flanked by the handsome horizontals of Clare College and the classical Gibbs building of King’s.

The trouble with a view is that it works both ways; the traffic sees the chapel and the inhabitants of the colleges see the traffic. The traffic lights by King’s Back Gate aggravate the problem; much of the time, and all night, from the colleges the brake lights of cars and lorries are all you see. Double-decker buses, it has been suggested, would give an even better view. Thus the Backs are being degraded from a private and tranquil green garden to a public spectacle.

One partial answer, and one I have been proposing for years, is more tree-planting. Weeping willows to frame views at certain points along the road and the river would alleviate the problem. As parkland, Scholars’ Piece needs two or three big specimen trees. Categorically no, say the advocates of tourism. The view is public property. It brings in money. Not to the college, the university or its scholars, though, looking for tranquillity. The problem won’t go away.

More leaves

November 26, 2019

....tentative ponds....

I’ve been totally absorbed all morning in the childish pleasure of playing with water. Its most joyous form, for me, is encouraging a trickle to become a stream. In Wales it’s easy; on the hills there is always a head of water to be released by shifting a rock, some earth, even a few leaves. The most satisfying result is when a single leaf is blocking a potential leak. Once let a trickle feel the force of gravity and it soon swells. ‘Freshet’ is the word for a sudden tide of overflowing water; miniature it may be, but the sense of inevitability, of unlocking a predictable process, is deeply satisfying. The first leaf moves, two more follow it, six more stir on the surface and the water gathers speed. A clump of fallen leaves dams the tiny stream until I poke it with my stick. The streamlet gushes on, the flow accumulates, I nudge more leaves aside; now the flow has the momentum to push an obstruction away. It reaches a tiny cliff edge, breaks over it and charges on, feeling the contours, hesitates when they flatten out, finds the lowest way and soaks the surface while it gathers weight to push on again. I look back; there is a little silver line where my stick and I have been.

It’s harder in Hampshire. The dry spring and summer dried up such little springs as we have in ‘our’ garden in the New Forest. There are half a dozen little stream beds in a steepish bank, leading to three rather tentative ponds. They become little streams again after a sustained deluge; most of the time they are dry – and now chock-full of brown leaves.

Not to be discouraged, I delved around at the top with my stick until I found damp leaves, then the gleam of water. Hurrah, the water is moving – just. I clear its way; it finds the direction downhill. A minute or two later it gathers enough momentum to follow my stick as it pokes leaves out of the way. Yes, I could bring a fork and shovel them out wholesale. But the fun is in gentle nudging to see what the water will do unaided.

Raking leaves

November 10, 2019

not bad for a sycamore Not bad for a sycamore

What are the words for these rejects, these fragments of plant-flesh, designed, precision-cut, palmate or pinnate, extruded into air by a mysterious subterranean pump? Sun coloured them, rain polished them, wind rattled them, time tired them.

Some let go, some hung till frost forced abscission. Was that hard, breaking the cord of life to float some seconds
free, the ground coming up, choosing to land on the hedge, in the currant bush, tangled in ivy or safe on the path?

I scratch you out with my rake, wherever you land, admire your yolk-yellow, your dappled apple in a glance and drag you into my soggy pile.

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Trees

Trees was first published in 1973 as The International Book of Trees, two years after The World Atlas of Wine….

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Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book

I wrote my first Pocket Wine Book in 1977, was quite surprised to be asked to revise it in 1978,…

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