Andrew from Dolton
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Scribblings on a wintery day.
The Frost performs its secret ministry,
Unhelped by any wind. The owlet's cry
Came loud—and hark, again! loud as before....
Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
After a week of sub-zero temperatures and biting icy dry easterlies it has now begun to snow. So far our little corner of North Devon had escaped the worst disruption and in line with the current trend for giving weather events silly names it was first called "The beast from the east" and now Storm Emma. Unprecedented red weather warnings in Scotland have now just been up-graded to even more unlikely warnings for the south-west too, up to 50cm of snow predicted. Older villagers mutter about the great blizzard of '78. Every flake is settling unmolested on the frozen ground and a ghostly pallid light reflected from outside invades every room, I have concerns about my roses. The Chinas in pots up against the house are protected behind big sheets of glass. But impatient tender shoots 10cm long must be suffering. Other worries for some miniatures; 'Baby Faurax', chinensis 'Minima', multiflora nana, 'Baby Gold Star' and 'Sweet Fairy' all had little tufts of growths. There is now snow covering most of them but as it was -10 on two consecutive nights and tonight on top of snow could drop further I took the precaution of covering them over with buckets against the desiccating wind, I think they will be robust enough to take the cold. Other flowers so bright and gay now are prostrate and flaccid; Hellebores, crocus, snowdrops and any St David's day narcissus entombed in snow. My cat, Apple, had never seen snow before. Slightly feral and skittish, on venturing outside for her morning constitutional, looks around indignantly as flakes as big as feathers touched all sorts of private places forbidden to anyone else.
Yesterday I mailed off In My Garden for March, writing about sitting in golden sunshine! I am always a month behind each issue of the Dolton Diary and the deadline is at the beginning of the month. An amount of prediction and poetic license is called for; yes last March I potted roses and sat in the sun, yes I will do the same soon after the thaw.
Hunkered down. The car is now unusable but with more than enough food in cupboards and freezer, stacks of wood and logs blazing away on the fire, the enjoyment of a sense of inverted claustrophobia, the cottage is cosy and warm. All the usual nonsense for a country unprepared; no work, no post, no dustman, no recycling, no bus service, no milk, papers or bread in the village shop...
In My Garden, March.
24/3/43. "A curious seaside feeling in the air today. It reminds me of lodgings on a parade at Easter. Everyone is leaning against the wind, nipped & silenced. All pulp removed.
This windy corner. And Nessa is at Brighton, & I am imagining how it wd be if we could infuse souls".
Sitting in a haze of golden sunshine I've just finished potting up roses for charity, I feel virtuous. Every year at Berry Cottages in Dowland the open gardens, plant sale AND THE FOOD are always very popular. I try and grow as many roses from cuttings, layers and suckers as I can and types that are not often seen in garden centres. One sure-seller is 'Rosa Mundi'. Correctly called Rosa gallica 'Versicolor', it is an ancient rose with highly scented pink flowers flecked and striped all over with cerise, they look like confectionary. A survivor of derelict gardens it's tough as old boots still flowering no matter how much abuse and neglect received. People often call it "Rose of the World", however it was more likely named after Rosamund Clifford, mistress to Henry II. According to legend, whilst the king crusaded poor Ms Clifford was secreted at the centre of an intricate labyrinth romantically installed within a flowery bower. Discovered by Henry's ambitiously shrewish wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, she was given the choice of death by a dagger or poison chalice, she chose the latter. Improbable folklore. But 'Rosa Mundi' is worth growing if only for this very reason alone.
Once a year when I was growing-up my father made nettle soup for us. A spring time staple during the war, for a child evacuee in this era of scarcity it was not only tasty but highly nourishing too. In my childhood, decades before foraging became fashionable, it was a reminder to bourgeois middle-class lifestyles that at my age dad relied for sustenance off the land.
You wait until there have been a few warm days in March and the nettles suddenly put on a growth spurt. Pick just the newest growth and first pair of leaves, any further down and they become too fibrous, in former times the stems were used to make course cloth. Gloves are for wimps. When you have picked a bag full, it looks a lot but it isn't, push them right down and gather at least the same amount again. They have the most enjoyable spring-like fragrance. Dad would have them cooked with vegetables all roughly chopped, perhaps a young rabbit or old hen jointed, and ubiquitous slices of national loaf. Free from the restrictions of rationing austerity I like to make the recipe with a little more finesse. Sweat an onion down in plenty of butter and a generous amount of garlic too. Add a bay leaf, black pepper, salt, a couple of blades of mace, a large potato, two celery sticks and carrots all cut up small, and the nettle tops. The meat isn't necessary but about half a litre of good quality chicken stock (preferably homemade) greatly enhances the taste, add half now and keep back half to finish. Cover and simmer gently until everything is nice and soft. Remove the bay leaf and blitz with a blender until smooth. Extra stock can then be added, just enough to give a good soupy consistency.
I have several patches of nettles in my garden that are deliberately left. Not just for this purpose, they are also an ideal food plant for the caterpillars of many attractive butterflies; Commas, Red Admirals, Tortoise Shells and Peacocks. To serve the soup just a few vital embellishments: ramsons leaves finely chopped, a good dollop of sour cream and a grating of nutmeg, liberal amounts of warmed artisan bread smothered with chicken liver pate and a long walk in the countryside on a sunny day admiring the spring.
© AndrewtheGardener 1/3/18
In My Garden, February.
22/2/65. "The tall handsome rooms were full of lovely things including a table covered with pots of flowers -- large pitcher orchids, jasmine, aconites and snowdrops -- and looked out on the beautiful frozen garden. Roaring fires, voluptuous cats;..."
Driving home from the pub two toads are in the road by Addisford. I stop the car, they are females swollen with eggs and I help them across. It suddenly feels mild and spring-like, the temperature in the car tonight says 12° Celsius. Winter moths flutter in the head lights. There is a marshy area to my left in the direction the toads were heading and I can hear the sound of males calling; a woman's prerogative, males always arrive at a spawning site first. The toads in my garden love the log pile. Raised on pallets the dampness underneath is a perfect dark hidey-hole of safety and hunting ground. Palmate newts abide in an old boiling pan sunk into the ground. Once the youngsters leave the water after their tadpole stage they live exclusively on land for a couple of years until sexually mature and they return to being aquatic again. The juveniles live amongst protection of the cracks and crevices in the raised beds and terraces I constructed over ten years ago. These also offer refuge and places to bask for lizards which flit about in sun and shady leaves as they hunt out insects. Under sheets of corrugated iron live colonies of slow worms they thrive in the warm dark dryness of this environment. Neither worm nor snake they are lizards too and as summer progresses they are joined by their young; they don't lay eggs as many reptiles do but give birth directly to live thread-like miniature versions of themselves. Occasionally there are grass snakes; sinisterly coiled, poisonous looking, they're harmless, I once saw a buzzard fly over with one hanging from its beak.
When I lived in Sussex the weather was so much more predictable than here. We rarely had the sort of day when there is heavy rain from dawn to evening, also no more near so much of that drizzly misty rain that makes everything so soaking wet. What I don't miss here in Devon are the searing easterly winds blowing icy air straight off the continent, "A wind from the east blows no good for man nor beast". Frozen dry air is blasted into even the most cosily sheltered corner, they would bring with them a black frost. In Devon the weather is far more chaotic and local, from the coast to a moor, in a valley or rolling hills a few kilometres difference is just a tiny step in distance but meteorologically it can be a massive stride. A device that I find most useful is called a Zambretti Forecaster. Made-up of a series of discs and pointers it is a weather computer. You first set the appropriate arrow to wind direction. Then next check your barometer. Then move the inner dial to point at the corresponding millibars on the middle dial. See whether the pressure is rising or falling or staying the same and you will see in a window a letter that relates to the pressure reading. Turn the Forcaster over and on the back tells you what each letter represents: A = SETTLED FINE; H = FAIRLY FINE SHOWERY LATER; P = CHANGABLE, SOME RAIN; finishing all the way through the alphabet at Z = STORMY MUCH RAIN. It is surprisingly accurate for the short term 8 hours or so; more reliable than the Met. Office.
Mild nights in February are nearly always deceptive and the toads take a gamble; if they delay spawning then the ditches and puddles they often use may dry-up before the tadpoles have time to mature, too early and they might become frozen solid. The first fling of winter's over but it's certainly not spring yet.
© AndrewtheGardener 8/2/18.
My first job where I was solely responsible for a garden was for an historic house called Charleston Farmhouse, the country home of Vanessa Bell, sister to Vriginia Woolf, and various other artists and writers, members of the Bloomsbury Group. By the early 1980's the house, garden and art collection was in a terrible condition and The Charleston Trust was set-up to try and restore and preserve some of the collection. Money was raised and an ambitious restoration was begun.
The original garden was laid out in the during the 1920's under the direction of writer, critic and artist Roger Fry. His home Durbins near Guildford had a garden designed by Gertrude Jekyll and the Charleston garden's formal structure with informal plantings owed more than a nod to her. By the time the finial resident Duncan Grant Had died in 1978 it was largely neglected, grassed over with all sorts of inappropriate plants, overgrown dead and dying apple trees. Around 1987 a generous donation from Readers Digest enabled Sir Peter Sheperd to draw out a new design based on what had existed before. There was a wealth of old photographs, a multitude of paintings by the artists (In later life Vanessa Bell had written that she was seldom interested in anything beyond her own door step as subjects for Still life paintings), diaries and letters and peoples memories, in those days they were still many friends and relatives who remembered the garden in its heyday. When I had started in the mid nineties the "new" garden was starting to mature. A garden is a growing changing organism, the Trust never wanted to preserve an unchanging vignette of the past, neither would this have been possible. There was always room for refining and tweaking.
Soon after I started I discovered digging was not just confined to the garden. A wealth of archives, paintings, sketches, diaries, letters, memories and photographs could all be delved into and tapped for information. Constantly new books appeared, biographies, published letters, unseen paintings all needed scrutinising to see if any new information could be gleaned. The writer Frances Partridge occasionally visited, she was part of the Strachey, Carrington, Partridge ménage from Tidmarsh Mill and later Ham Spray. Aged 101, the last time I'd met her, she had first visited Charleston in the 1920's and her acutely sharp memory was always fully taken advantage of. "I remember Carrington planting iris just like that at Tidmarsh", such a portal into a past and vanished world.
Forever an avid reader I devoured any relevant book for information quickly developing a great curiosity for historical facts and information. Frances' diaries, especially 'A Pacifist's War' are some of my favourite literature, every year I re-read the five volumes of Virginia Woolf's diaries as an eagerly anticipated and delicious treat. After I moved on from Charleston I was head gardener at Gravetye Manor, a garden created by the great horticulturalist William Robinson; more research and discoveries to be made. Moving down to Devon 12 years ago I soon found out that the location of my cottage had been the subject of an important photographic study and an internationally important archive was created by James Ravilious whose beautiful photographs documented every day lives of people, places and scenery over 17 years. I am just 10 minutes walk from the river Torridge, where Henry Williamson set his famous book Tarka the Otter and I see otters in the stream in front of my cottage, you hear them most often at night whistling to each other and turning over rocks as they hunt for eels. In recent time there was a film made by Steven Spielberg from the book and play (with incredible puppetry) based on the book War Horse by Michael Morpurgo. Little did I realise that this quiet out of the way piece of North Devon is full of history and interest and bitten by the history bug I have developed a fever for this sort of thing.
Close-by to my cottage is a derelict mill and one day whilst taking some pictures of the decaying house and barns I noticed a rose in the remains of a garden. In fact there were two, I took cuttings of both. One was 'Paul Ricault' and the other probably 'Turner's Crimson'. The mill changed hands a few years ago and the new owner is steadily restoring it. The "garden" has been cleared away and I have offered plants back of both of these. The same distance in the other direction was Bissett Cottage, nothing remains of this dwelling except lilac, periwinkle and masses of Rosa cinnnamomea 'Plena', which was identified by members of HMF. Deep in the woods down by the river is what is left of Dye Cottage, almost completely consumed by woodland now. Last year I noticed a few tiny growths of a rose, very different from the surrounding Rosa arvensis. A small root of this planted in my garden has produced four stems 1.2metres tall which I have great expectation to see in flower. These last two cottages were abandoned around the turn of last century, both the roses have survived at least 120 years.
A week ago I purchased a book written about the history of our village, there have been several other abandoned houses in and around Dolton. Most of the cottages, mine included, are made from cob -- a mixture of straw, mud, manure and stone. It has never been a very prosperous part of the country, in the 1950's you could have purchased one of these little cottages for as little as £100. From around 1800 there was a gradual migration from rural living to people moving into towns. 100 years ago if one fell into such a state of disrepair it was uneconomical to rebuild they were just abandoned and gradually melted back into the soil from which they were created. Today it was too cold to garden so I ventured out for a brisk walk to try and find another site, Tabernacle Cottage sounded intriguing:
"This site on the Dolton -- Beaford road is situated between the side lanes to Iddlecott and to Venton. Its 1/2 acre is now occupied by scrub and a derelict corrugated iron shed + ruined caravan, but in 1842 there was a cottage here housing John Lyne with his blacksmith's business (he was doubtless a relation of the two Lynes, also smiths, at Northbrook Cottage in Dolton). Later in C19 the dwelling was used by farm labourers, but around the turn of the century was demolished; then in the mid-C20 the existing (ruined) structure was built, and was used as a slaughterhouse".
The site in a copse was easy to find, at this time of year it is covered in clumps of snowdrops, a moribund bush of Lonicera nitida and the area is also one great mat of lesser periwinkle, Vinca minor. This plant is interesting; most probably introduced by the Romans, it is doubtful that it ever reproduces sexually. So simple to propagate, every stem will send out roots from pairs of leaves where ever it touches on the soil. It is never found far from cultivation. And also there was a rose! It is growing in amongst the trees it three or four parts. One a lax looking bush, the other trying to climb with stems 3 metres long. I returned tonight and rustled pieces of both. I thought they may have been Rosa multiflora but the stipules are barely ciliated at all, the prickles are short, pale brown and slightly hooked. I will post better pictures as it starts to grow and so with great excitement I will wait until this and the Dye Cottage rose flower this year. I find this detective work utterly fascinating.