Monday, January 26, 2015

Joseph, Arthur and Alfred - an afternoon in Avalon.

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Glastonbury Abbey Ruin

Snowdrops at Glastonbury Abbey

Glastonbury Tor
Yesterday I spent an interesting and rewarding afternoon in and around Glastonbury and the Somerset Levels. This time last year the Levels were in the grip of terrible floods and many villages were only accessible by boat. This gives us a bit of a clue to the original landscape of the levels. Back in early medieval times the Somerset levels were a chain of island settlements separated by water. Those with an interest in English history will recall that when King Alfred hid in the Levels (and reputedly burned the cakes) the Danes were searching for him in boats. He was hiding on the Isle of Athelney.

The most famous of these islands in the Somerset Levels is the 'Isle of Avalon'. Many people (mistakenly) view Avalon as a fictional location because of its ties with the legends of King Arthur and the Holy Grail. Whether Arthur or the Grail existed are a matter for conjecture and debate; the existence of Avalon is fact. It just means the island of apples, no coincidence then that the land around this area is largely given over to apple orchards (not just any old apples - cider apples).

King Arthur's Grave (?)

The Lady Chapel, Glastonbury Abbey

The main part of the day was spent in Glastonbury Abbey, now a ruin. Glastonbury was one of the largest, richest and most powerful abbeys in medieval England. To put this into historic context, the abbeys were where most of the wealth of the nation resided. In medieval times wool was the most sought after commodity and the abbeys had vast tracts of land populated by huge flocks of sheep.  When Henry VIII 'dissolved' the monasteries Glastonbury was defiant and, thus, he made an example of it. The abbot was hung, drawn and quartered (with two of his monks) for treason on top of the tor and his head displayed on the west gate of the abbey. The tor is visible for miles around and is (and was) an iconic landmark. Henry's men knew how to make a point!

The earliest Christian settlement in Somerset was, reputedly, founded in AD63 by Joseph of Arimathea, reputedly the uncle of Jesus Christ. The oratory was founded on Wearyall Hill where Joseph planted his staff which flowered. The offspring of this particular tree are still to be found in Glastonbury and known as the Glastonbury Thorn. It flowers twice a year, one of those blossoming is at Christmas when the Queen receives a posy of blossom. Joseph was no stranger to the West Country as he made a number of trips to trade tin in Cornwall.

So where does Arthur fit in to all of this myth, legend and history? In 1191 the monks discovered a tomb near the high altar containing the remains of a man and woman with a cross with a Latin inscription claiming the body to be Arthur. This discovery was incredibly convenient coming, as it did, shortly after the abbey burned down. In medieval times abbeys needed pilgrims because pilgrims brought income. If you need to rebuild an abbey, money is what you need. The cynic in me finds the Arthur part of the Glastonbury legends just a little too convenient!

I would certainly recommend a visit to Glastonbury and the Somerset Levels. You may well return with more questions than answers, not necessarily a bad thing, and I bet you'll go back more than once!



Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Gradual Return of Daylight

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January sunrise on Cotley Hill

Well, we're past the middle of January and there's a bit more daylight in the evening. If you live in the countryside, there are some good daily markers. In mid December our hens were all in the hen house by a quarter past four, today it's five o' clock and the stragglers are just heading in. There are plenty of snowdrops out too.

Snowdrops almost out, Norton Bavant
The songbirds also think spring is around the corner. Plenty of courtship rituals happening all over the garden and in the hedgerows. The robins have been particularly feisty and vocal. They are a very territorial little bird.

Robin Red Breast

There have been plenty of crisp mornings so far this month and plenty of wonderful walking. Such a contrast to last year's soggy winter.

Cotley Hill, Wylye Valley, Wiltshire

Morning mist clears from Sutton Veny
The returning daylight is usually the cue for me to roam further afield. Who knows what next week might bring.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

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A Sparkling End to 2014

Christmas Eve sunset from Scratchbury Hill
Happy New Year!

New Years Day is something of a damp and dreary affair here in Wiltshire, but the final fortnight of 2014 was blessed with dry, sunny weather with sharp, sparkling, frosty mornings. Perfect weather for winter walking and lovely light for photography.

The cold, frosty days have encouraged more songbirds into the garden to use the feeders and bird table, which has made for some great opportunities for photography.

Great Tit and Goldfinches

Great Tit, Goldfinch and Sparrow (in flight).
 There are plenty of waterfowl on our wetland nature reserve, Langford Lakes, run by Wiltshire Wildlife Trust. Langford Lakes is a collection of lakes with birdwatching 'hides' located around the lakeshores and plenty of easily accessible information boards. On boxing day we were lucky enough to see ; Egrets, Great Crested Grebe, Ruddy Ducks, Coot, Moorhen and Mute Swans.

Swan coming in to land

Great Crested Grebe

Coot

A year ago our part of the world was in the grip of floods, so this dry Festive Season has been a great source of relief! Here's hoping for a benign 2015!

Friday, December 5, 2014

Wiltshire's Historic Landscape

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Late afternoon sky over Avebury - Ian Newman

With the lack of daylight hours and the unpredictability of the weather, December and early January tends to be the time of year that we keep our day trips local. Not a hardship when you are as fortunate as we are with our local landscape!

The dry cold weather of the last couple of weeks has given us ample opportunity to get out in the countryside and, with the leaves mostly off the trees and on the ground, we have given the wealth of ancient and medieval history available on Salisbury Plain and among the chalk downs our full attention.

Standing Stones at Avebury - Ian Newman
The aim of our trip to the Avebury World Heritage Site last weekend was to get some great shots of stones wreathed in mist, however , we arrived to find full sunshine had a good walk over Overton Hill and Fyfield Down on the ancient Ridgeway before returning to Avebury to be rewarded with excellent late afternoon and early evening light and the chance to take some good photographs (albeit without the mist).

Wind blasted trees and sarsen stones, Fyfield Down - Ian Newman

There has been much excitement around Old Sarum Castle near Salisbury this week, with the discovery of the layout of the medieval town which had grown up around the castle and neighbouring cathedral. This was achieved by Ground Penetrating Radar without even breaking the soil. Check out the BBC News item here.

Old Sarum from the air - English Heritage


Old Sarum was an Iron Age hill fort, which was then occupied by the Romans as it was on the march from Londinium (modern day London) to Aquae Sulis (Bath). After the Romans withdrew, the Saxons occupied the castle which was in a commanding position within Wessex (the kingdom of the West Saxons). After the Norman Conquest in 1066 William put a very strong garrison into Old Sarum to keep Wessex under control (Harold Godwinson, the Saxon king defeated at the Battle of Hastings, had been Earl of Wessex). The Domesday Book was presented to William at Old Sarum. Domesday was the list of taxable assets within William's new domain (most of which had passed from Saxon to Norman ownership) and the symbolism of where it was presented was absolutely calculated to emphasise who was boss!

Cathedral Footprint from Old Sarum Castle - Ian Newman
In 1220 a number of factors (not least the friction between the clergy and the garrison) led to the construction of a magnificent new cathedral two miles away in the growing town of Salisbury.

Old Sarum is managed by English Heritage and is open throughout the winter.


Thursday, November 20, 2014

Rewilding, Reintroduction, Wildlife Photography, Deer and..........Natural Capital

Last Saturday I attended the Southern Area Members Gathering of the John Muir Trust (JMT). I was accompanied by four Countryside students from Harper Adams University, so their take on the meeting will be very interesting (and ultimately, as they follow their chosen career path, more significant than mine).

The John Muir Trust is a charity set up to protect wild land and wild places - very much the ethos of John Muir, the Scot who emigrated to the United States and was instrumental in persuading the then President, Roosevelt, that wild places should be valued for their own sakes. This was the trigger for the creation of National Parks within the USA and ultimately in many other countries worldwide.

The main content of the morning's proceedings was the annual report by Chief Executive Stuart Brooks which touched upon many aspects of the Trust's work and outlined the Trust's stance on a number of  issues, some contentious. There are some issues upon which the JMT is still deciding its position.

The JMT is still  committed to rewilding the tracts of land that it owns in both Highland and Lowland Scotland and is always on the lookout for suitable properties in England and Wales. As part of its commitment to reducing deer numbers the JMT is in favour of reintroducing a 'top predator' species. The reintroduction of the wolf is now off the agenda and the 'w' word is now taboo. The proposed reintroduction of the European Lynx is gathering momentum, the public debate will be interesting.
A picture of a European Lynx would have been good at this point, but I don't have one. Perhaps if and when they're reintroduced.....

The concept of 'Natural Capital' was discussed. Natural Capital is a system by which natural and ecological processes which provide a 'service' to man and/or industry (such as trees providing natural flood defences, vegetation providing water purification etc) are assigned a monetary value.

There are two schools of thought on this: one is that by showing that nature will help the balance sheet, industry and big business can be encouraged to adopt greener practices; the other is that the cynical number crunchers within industry will run rings around environmentalists and conservationists when it comes to the manipulation of statistics to their own ends. The other down side to Natural Capital is that enthusiastic, well-meaning amateurs like my 'good self' know in our hearts that nature needs to be protected and turning it into a 'balance sheet asset' may well disenchant that vital army of volunteers and activists who do so much good work.

The JMT has not decided its stance on this but intends to be party to the 'conversation', which I feel is sensible.

So after a heavy morning receiving updates on natural issues of great moment it was a 'breath of fresh air' to have an audio visual presentation by talented young wildlife photographer, camera man and presenter Bertie Gregory. Check out his website, if he's this good at twenty one I can't wait to see his material in a few years' time! An excellent way to round off the morning.

The afternoon focused on deer management with Mike Daniels providing the view from the Scottish Highlands, Charles Harding from Exmoor and John Stowers, the South West liaison officer of the 'Deer Initiative' ( a national group drawn from a number of agencies).

The overwhelming conclusion, which surprised no-one, is that there are far too many deer both north and south of the border, but the issues have significant regional differences. In the highlands the red deer can only be shot during a short season when the meat is in its worst condition and this precludes them from being used, other than locally, as a food source.

The deer population in England and Wales is hugely out of control. Some venison is being sold locally but numbers are on the increase.

The main issue with deer in the Scottish Highlands is ecological, can the landscape support them. The increased numbers are harming the landscape. The issue in England, especially in central southern England is that there is a huge deer population living in close proximity with a huge human population and the place where the two species collide (quite literally) is on the road. There are a staggering number of Road Traffic Collisions (RTC) each year involving deer and these are increasing in line with the population increases of both species. So the question is not just ecological but social.

A final note of caution, we think deer are a problem (and they are) The number of wild boar in the countryside is increasing at an alarming rate (after all sows have six to eight young rather than a female deer's one). Following the (small) breakout from a farm in the Forest of Dean, there are estimated to be around two thousand wild boar in the forest. There have been similar breakouts all over the country so there are a lot of them out there. The prospect of a  RTC with a wild boar is a very daunting one.

Any way, a good meeting - pithy and pertinent (as it should be) and plenty of food for thought.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Trees, Toadstools and Conservation

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The Cathedral Oak
King Alfred's Cakes

October and November have been great months for walking in the woods. We've managed to get to Savernake Forest and have a chance to view the Cathedral Oak, reputedly the second oldest oak tree in the United Kingdom. With a circumference of over 10 metres and aged over 1100 years, the tree still looks magnificent. The biggest and oldest is also in the Savernake Forest and is known as the Big Bellied Oak, but that one is showing its age now.

There are plenty of interesting fungi around in the Savernake at the moment. The one in the picture is known as 'King Alfred's Cakes'. If you're ever out in the woods and need to keep your camp fire going, these little fungi burn slowly with intense heat, like charcoal.

Tree Tag, Selworthy Woods

Sweet Chestnut, Selworthy Woods

Selworthy and Cockerhills wall restoration

We took the opportunity to measure, survey and map a number of veteran and notable trees in Selworthy woods on Exmoor's Holnicote Estate (National Trust). We came across this beautifully reconstructed wall which is a part of the recently completed Selworthy and Cockerhills wall project. The task was undertaken by volunteers under the supervision of the Honicote Ranger Team. What a fantastic job they've done.

It's easy to believe, as you walk through the superb ancient woodlands in Britain, that they look after themselves but the opposite is true - they are maintained by small dedicated teams of professionals supported by an army of unpaid volunteers. We're certainly grateful and very much enjoyed making our  own very small contribution the other week.

Maple Ridge

Looking For Indicator Species, Holnicote
 Another opportunity to go back to Holnicote, this time to help daughter, Heather, with her grassland management project but more of that when we have all the data!

Monday, October 6, 2014

Farewell Summer, Hello Autumn

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What a wonderful summer it has been, with the inevitable 'hiccup' during August when the schools are on their long summer break.

Our splendid 'Indian Summer' finally seems to have given way to something more akin to autumn. Our final guided group holiday is under way in the Lake District, all of our 'self-guided' walkers have had their vacations and returned safely home and our final 'tailor-made' group of the season has returned to North America. We are busily finalising our 2015 programme.

This fantastic summer has left the hedgerows overloaded with berries. Our apple trees have been breaking under the weight of fruit and we have been inundated with raspberries, gooseberries, currants and strawberries. Blackberries, damsons and elderberries have all been abundant in the hedgerows and the sloes, whilst not around in the quantities of the others, have yielded sufficient for sloe gin! So we have reached the time of year for bottling and preserving and for making jams, jellies, chutneys, country wines and cider. One of my favourite times of year.

The cider is brewing!
Our friends at Camel Valley Vineyard have had a bumper crop of grapes this year.

The autumn is a great time for getting out for a walk too. The leaves are just beginning to change colour and, in the woods, spectacular fungi are beginning to appear.

Chicken of the Woods fungus, Exmoor
If you're looking for a great place for an autumn walk, why not try the South Downs or Exmoor.
Exmoor is our particular favourite, especially in October and early November when the red deer 'rut' is under way and the hills and woodlands are alive with the sound of the bellowing of stags!

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

It's Been A Fantastic Summer for Butterflies and Moths

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Silver Washed Fritillary - Photograph by Heather Newman
My previous blog was entitled 'It's Been A Good Year For The Orchids', well if it's been a good year for the orchids it has been an outstanding year for the phylum Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths).
It would appear that a combination of a wet, mild winter with very few frosts and a warm dry spring and summer has been perfect for wild flowers and, therefore, perfect for butterflies. It's a very long time since I have seen a summer with such an abundance of wild flowers and insect life and, as I am constantly reminded by my family, I've seen quite a few (summers).

Burnett Moth on Ragwort - Photograph Ian Newman
Scarlet Tiger Moth - Photo Ian Newman
Magpie Moth - Photograph Ian Newman
The Cornish coast has been a riot of wild flowers and insect life this year. Moths are widely regarded by 'non-entomologists' to be the dowdy poor relations of the butterflies, but the 'daytime moths' seen on the coast path have been an absolute joy.
Small Blue Butterfly - photo Ian Newman
Our daughter, Heather, has been involved in reintroduction programmes for some rare species of butterfly as part of her work on Holnicote Estate on Exmoor. Check out her Facebook page; 'Heather's Holnicote Diary'.

If this has stimulated your interest in butterflies and you would like to be involved in their conservation check out the Big Butterfly Count which ends on August 10.

Friday, July 4, 2014

It's Been A Good Year For The.......Orchids

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Pyramidal Orchid



 Well, the wet, windy winter wasn't to most peoples' taste but the wild orchids obviously loved it. This spring and summer have been by far the most prolific 'orchid season' that I have seen. One of the reasons that we moved to the Wylye Valley was the abundance of flora in the surrounding calcareous grassland, but this year has been exceptional.

Bee Orchid
On our local hills we have found Fragrant Orchids, Spotted Orchids, Pyramidal Orchids, Bee Orchids, Butterfly Orchids, Twayblades, Marsh Orchids. A veritable feast of wild flowers.

Lesser Butterfly Orchid
Further afield the Cotswolds, Cornwall and Exmoor have all had exceptional orchid seasons.

Narrow Leafed Marsh Orchid
What a treat it has been, and they're still out there - but not for much longer! Get out into the countryside while the opportunity is still there.


Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Old Father Thames Keeps Rolling Along.............

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Clifton Hampden bridge and church

Hambleden Mill, Hambleden Lock

Walkers on Wittenham Meadows
Just returned from an interesting two weeks exploring the river Thames. There are few rivers that show so much contrast between source and estuary.

The Thames rises among the Cotswold Hills near Cirencester and then wends its tranquil way through Cotswold meadows and woodland to reach the great academic city of Oxford, where it briefly becomes the Isis (the Roman name of the river was Thamisis and Oxford likes to be a little 'different'). Below Oxford the Thames begins to widen and increase in power. There are wonderful stretches of towpath to walk notably the stretch from Culham to Dorchester-on-Thames visiting picturesque Clifton Hampden and the famous Barley Mow pub on the way. Dorchester Abbey is a very significant (as well as beautiful) building in the development of Christianity in Anglo Saxon
England.

The stretch of Thames between Henley and the pretty village of Hurley is well worth an afternoon walk (especially if you detour into Hurley Lock for a cream tea!) and passes historic Medmenham Abbey, former home of the notorious 'Hellfire Club'.

The White Tower, Tower of London

Hampton Court Palace

The Shard and 'More London'
The 'metropolitan' Thames is different altogether. Busy and bustling as recreation rubs shoulders with commerce. The stretches of Thames between Hampton Court, Richmond and Kew have a green and rural quality which belies their location in one of the worlds great metropolitan cities. The 'Pool of London' between Putney and Tower Bridge has a bewildering array of iconic historic buildings such as the Palace of Westminster, Somerset House, The Tower of London, St Paul's Cathedral 'cheek by jowl' with the Shard, the Gherkin, the Walky-Talky and the Cheesegrater.

This combination just should not work and anywhere else in the world it wouldn't, but in London it just does! 


Monday, April 28, 2014

'O to be in England, now that April's there'

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Raglan Castle, tower and moat





Sugar Loaf and Skyrrydd Fawr from the top of the tower at Raglan

 Daughter Rebecca has all but completed her degree at Trinity St Davids university in West Wales, which will bring to an end our regular shuttles back and forth across the Severn bridge and through the Brecon Beacons National Park.  On our most recent journey, on a beautiful day and given that the degree in question is in Medieval Studies, we stopped to visit Raglan Castle near Abergavenny in the 'Welsh Marches'. Raglan Castle was the last castle to be built in Wales (other than follies) and was the most impressive castle not in Royal ownership, it is now in the care of Cadw (the Welsh heritage protection agency). The view from the top of the tower takes in two of the black mountain summits near Abergavenny.

'May Blossom', Cotswolds.
The blog title is a quote from Robert Browning's poem 'Home Thoughts From Abroad'. We have to agree with the sentiment. The hedgerows have certainly burst into life. The hawthorn and blackthorn, collectively known as 'the May, are putting on a spectacular display of blossom this year. This week our other daughter, Heather, has been checking some route descriptions in the lovely area of the Cotswolds to the north of Bath. Newly hatched chicks in the hedgerows and trees, birds of prey in the air (no coincidence there), blossom in the hedges and on the crab apple trees and new lambs gamboling in the fields - a perfect time for walking.

The rolling Cotswold landscape near Bath

Closer to home, the bluebells are well and truly out in Great Ridge Woods!