February has slipped by and here we are in March. The wildlife obviously thinks that springtime is just around the corner; birds are pairing up for breeding and , for me, the most enjoyable sign of approaching spring – Hares boxing on the hillside. Yes, the Mad March Hare is with us, We are very fortunate in the chalk downland of Wiltshire to have a thriving population.
We are also very lucky to live within the hunting territory of a Barn Owl. The small mammals are becoming more active in the fields now, so this is a good time to see her. Usually we have to make do with the thrill of a fleeting glimpse but a couple of days ago she obligingly sat on a fence post long enough for us to fetch a camera.
Around the village, Roe Deer are being quite bold and there are plenty of close encounters (with dog walkers in particular).
The flowers are shouting ‘Springtime’ too. The snowdrops are past their best and are giving way to some spectacular crocus and daffodils.
My summer walking boots are poised and ready – won’t be long now!
Having just returned from another frosty morning pre-breakfast walk with the dogs I settled down to my breakfast of toast and chunky marmalade and a mug of steaming hot tea whilst browsing the internet. A story caught my attention, mainly because it was on the subject of ……..marmalade. Marmalade is my number one sandwich filler to take on hikes too.
It would appear that the British appetite for the subtle, bittersweet preserve is dwindling in the face of competition from sweeter alternatives such as chocolate and hazelnut spreads. This came as no surprise, but what I hadn’t realised is that Britain is, by some distance, the largest consumer of Seville oranges and if the marmalade trade collapses completely there will be no reason for Spain to grow them. You certainly wouldn’t want to eat one for its own sake because, boy are they bitter!
This article prompted me to research further on the subject of this great British tradition (British not English). I had heard apocryphal stories purporting to explain the name ‘marmalade’. The original marmalade, by the way, was a bitter Portuguese paste made from Quinces called marmelado.
I have heard two other explanations, the first of which involves Mary Queen of Scots who, when suffering from one of her frequent headaches would call for marmalade and her maids would whisper ‘Marie est malade’ (Mary is ill). I half believed this one because the Scots can justifiably claim to be the first to sweeten the bitter paste, make it with oranges and add water to make it spreadable. The Scots also changed it from an evening accompaniment to a breakfast item. So thank you, Scotland, for marmalade and whisky (which can be combined into whisky marmalade).
The other explanation (which I believed wholeheartedly) was that marmalade was a corruption of ‘mal de mer’ (seasickness) and was a Naval term. Growing up in a seafaring community it was easy to believe that all traditions had their roots with the Royal Navy or the fishing fleet! Marmalade was certainly effective in the control of scurvy.
So, Portuguese Marmelado it is, although the Romans and Ancient Greeks had their own version too, by way of Alexander Keiller in Dundee to the breakfast tables of the British empire.
Marmalade also makes a beautifully astringent marinade for ham. You can be inventive with your Seville oranges too.
We are waiting for our Seville orange gin to mature, only three years to go. In a world full of quick fixes and instant gratification that’s somewhat refreshing.
The other news item which caught my eye was that in the TripAdvisor World’s Top Ten B&B’s list, five were in England (including the winner). Congratulations to all of them, I bet they all serve great marmalade at breakfast.
As October gives way to November the English landscape is transforming. The greens of summer have given way to the russet oranges and deep reds of autumn. The woods are full of interesting fungi which are grabbing their opportunity to reproduce. In two or three weeks Mother Nature will shut up shop and only the evergreens and berries will provide some colour. We certainly intend to take as many woodland walks as possible in the next few weeks.
This week we have taken a walk with plenty of attractive woodland, through the heart of the ancient Saxon kingdom of Wessex. From Salisbury Cathedral we followed the Clarendon Way past the ruins of Clarendon Palace (an ancient royal hunting lodge) and through the pretty Wiltshire villages of Pitton and Broughton before crossing into Hampshire and the village of Kings Somborne.
The Clarendon Way ends at Winchester Cathedral. From Winchester we joined St Swithun’s Way which links Winchester with the historic town of Farnham (just over the border in Surrey). The route leaves Winchester through a series of villages known as the ‘Worthy’s’ and heads along the valley of the idyllic trout stream, the Itchen.
Between the Worthy’s and Alton the route wends through pleasant pastoral scenery and colourful woodland. It visits the villages of Itchen Abbas and Ovington as well as the splendid town of Alresford in the Itchen valley before threading its way through Ropley and Chawton (former home of Jane Austen and present day home of the Jane Austen museum) before reaching the town of Alton itself.
Between Alton and Farnham the route picks its way through rolling green countryside, sporting estates and colourful woodland and ends at Farnham Castle.In the five days we covered 64 miles. Aside from the scenery there were some excellent hostelries which kept us sustained; honourable mentions must be given for the ‘Greyhound at Broughton’, the ‘Plough at Itchen Abbas’, ‘The Cricketers at Alresford’, the ‘Greyfriar at Chawton’ and the ‘Anchor at Lower Froyle’. Top of the unexpected, pleasant surprise category must go to the coffee shop at the Garden Centre at Four Marks. Excellent coffee and cake and, better still, it appeared just when it was needed.
Farnham is a splendid town and merits further exploration. It is also the start of the North Downs Way which follows the rolling hills through Surrey and Kent to reach the English Channel at Dover. Tempting, but it will have to wait.
We’re almost at the end of harvest time in the English countryside and heading toward that great walking season, the Autumn (or the Fall if you prefer). The changing colours make for breathtaking panoramas and vistas, enhanced by the morning mists.
So the Autumn is a boost for the spirit, but the joy of it for me is that it’s a feast for all of the senses. Walk through the woods in the early autumn and you will feel and hear the crunch of ‘beech masts’, acorns and horse chestnuts. Later in the season the crunch will be replaced by the swish and rustle as you kick through the fallen leaves.
In mid to late autumn the woods will carry the distinctive smell of fungi, some of which add their own colour to the scene.
If you are in the Quantocks, Exmoor or the Scottish Highlands you will hear the distinctive bellowing of stags in the rut.
Did we miss a sense? Of course, taste. The hedgerows are festooned with wild berries, damsons and plums.
It’s been four months since I last posted a blog. The spring and early summer positively flashed by in a blur of EU referendum and European soccer championships, both of which saw England leave Europe early.
Now in the ‘Brexit period’ we need some clear thinking and calm reflection. Perhaps the politicians ought to get out for a walk in the countryside. Brexit hasn’t affected the wildlife or plants, the crops are ripening nicely in the summer sunshine and the lack of amenities in the countryside sometimes feels like a blessing – there is still the occasional merciful blank spot where there is no phone signal!
I’ve added some pics of my favourite ‘escape spots’. Hope you like them.
In Greek mythology the Hyperboreans were mythical beings who dwelled beyond the North Wind. Boreal regions are sub arctic regions in the northern hemisphere.
In England we often speak about the ‘North South divide’. It refers to the socio-economic divisions between the more prosperous South and the post industrial North. People in the south are regarded as having a softer climate, an easier life and (consequently) not being quite as tough as their northern counterparts.
Geology has had a large bearing on this too. During the ice ages, the glaciers reached as far south as modern day Birmingham. The south would have been tundra and as any northerner will tell you, that’s not as rough or tough as glaciers, moraines and glacial tarns! Many of the people in the north are descended from Vikings , so maybe the toughness idea does have some historic substance!
England’s north country boasts no fewer than five National Parks: the Peak District, the Lake District, the North York Moors, the Yorkshire Dales and Northumberland. In addition there are a number of Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and a number of other conservation areas as well as Heritage Coast in Yorkshire and Northumberland.
The best known of the northern national parks is the Lake District. It is England’s only true mountain region and is the landscape which inspired a generation of poets. This dramatic, glacially sculpted area is a mecca for walkers, hikers and climbers.
The Yorkshire Dales National Park is one of the ‘heartlands’ of walking in England. Green hills, rivers, tumbling streams, waterfalls, cosy villages and welcoming pubs with great beer – that’s my wish list dealt with!
The highest hill outside of the Lake District is Cross Fell which towers over the village of Dufton. The summit of Cross Fell is the highest point on the Pennine Way National Trail and has its own distinctive weather system. We don’t usually give names to winds in Britain, but the wind that blows over Cross Fell is the exception and is known as the Helm.
Northumberland is the wildest part of England. Hadrian’s Wall marches across the Win Sill, Kielder Forest is a great refuge for wildlife including the Red Squirrel. Northumberland also possesses a hauntingly beautiful coast.
The North Yorks Moors National Park lies on the east coast of Yorkshire and consists of heather moorland stretching across to a spectacular coast. Wainwright’s classic long distance path stretches across three national parks; the Lake District, the Yorkshire Dales and the North York Moors and ends at pretty Robin Hood’s Bay on the North Sea coast.
One of the ‘hidden gems’ of the North is Teesdale. Where the infant Tees rises on the moors and begins its journey towards the port of Middlesborough, by which time it has become the mighty Tees estuary. Teesdale was the last place to lose its glacier at the end of the last ice age and is still home to an abundance of rare alpine and arctic flora, the like of which which cannot be found elsewhere in England. Teesdale also boasts England’s largest waterfall, High Force.
Next time you fancy a walk in England, you could do a lot worse than visit ‘our friends in the north’.
In 2015 the Meteorological Office decided that, for the first time, our Atlantic storms would be given names (in much the same way as hurricanes and tropical storms have had names for decades).
These names are given to storms which cause structural damage, affect travel and infrastructure and pose a danger to the population. Having grown up in a seafaring community, I am no stranger to high winds, lashing rain and crashing waves and my ‘inner cynic’ decided that this was just another way of turning weather into news.
An acquaintance recently put the alternate view to me; by giving these storms a name the Met Office hopes that the general public will heed the severe weather warnings which accompany the storm forecast and stay safe (rather than drive out for a pizza in ninety mile per hour winds or rush down to the foreshore to gaze at the fifty foot waves shredding the sea defences). It’s as if some people don’t feel that the emergency services have enough to do.
The frequency and severity of these storms seems to have increased as global warming takes hold. Britain is an island sat in the North Atlantic, big winds and heavy rain are nothing new but what seems to have changed is the sheer volume of rainfall. The warmer the air, the more moisture it will hold (and,therefore, release as rain). Once again this winter has seen a procession of storms heading eastwards across the Atlantic but at least now we can give a name to the storm which blew the fence down and flooded the town centre.
The Met Office did consult the great British public on Facebook and Twitter to come up with the names for these storms. Abigail had the distinction of being the first named British storm, followed by Barney, Clodagh, Desmond, Eva, Frank, Gertrude, Henry and (most recently) Imogen. I’m afraid that none of these names send me scurrying to a safe place, in fact Barney evokes thoughts of Fred Flintstone’s sidekick or a cuddly purple dinosaur and Imogen sounds far too polite to have torn the roof off my neighbour’s shed or closed the train lines into Cornwall. Still, they do say ‘what’s in a name’? I sincerely hope that we don’t have to meet up with Tegan, Vernon or Wendy this winter!
Our unseasonally warm and wet winter season lasted into January but has now been replaced by more recognisably winter conditions.
We have been blessed with cold, clear, crunchy mornings on Salisbury Plain this week. Clear, frosty mornings are one of the glories of wintertime – perfect for a walk and with the bonus of returning home with a clean dog and clean boots!
The evenings are drawing out now and the official beginning of Spring, March 1st, is now less than six weeks away. Our hens have started providing us with eggs again, a good indicator of the approach of Spring.
The New Year has seen a flurry in bookings as people plan their spring walking break – some as early as February (officially still winter), but most in April. The vast majority of these are for visits to Cornwall, Devon and West Somerset. No surprise there; spring comes early to South West England and to West Wales, the region is bathed in the mild air provided by the Gulf Stream. The Gulf Stream gives us our benign climate; let’s not quibble about a few ferocious Atlantic storms, our latitude puts us next to Siberia or the north shore of Hudson Bay and if it wasn’t for that agreeable maritime feature we would, quite literally, be freezing.
This ‘buffered’ weather on the coasts of the West and Wales, with severe winter frosts and summer droughts a rarity, enables some unexpected species to thrive. In February Camellias will start to blossom in Cornwall, followed a few weeks later by Magnolias and then rhododendrons. The landscaped gardens in Devon and Cornwall are really at their best in April and May. From April onwards, the coast path is a riot of colour due to a succession of wildflowers.
So, Spring’s just around the corner, time to dust off your hiking boots and head west.
It sustains life, supports growth and without it we would perish. It can be tranquil, picturesque, magnificent or destructive but when you’re out for a walk nothing lifts the spirits like a bit of water (unless it has flooded your path, of course!).
Whether it be a moorland stream, a mountain torrent, a glacial lake, a canal, a river, an estuary or the ocean there’s nothing like a body of water to add interest and heighten your enjoyment of a walk or hike.
Moorland Streams and Mountain Torrents
They babble, they thunder, they tumble. In a dry spell they trickle and tinkle musically, in a rainy period they gush and roar. No two walks next to a mountain or moorland stream are ever the same. My favourite moorland walks are in the region where I grew up; Dartmoor, Exmoor and Cornwall. I also love the moorland walks in North Yorkshire, the Yorkshire Dales, the Derbyshire Dales and Northumberland.
The streams are also magnets for wildlife and often form natural boundaries and borders which often makes them historically significant too.
Rivers and Canals
These moorland and mountain streams end up joining others and eventually run into larger rivers on their journey towards the sea. Some of these rivers have paths running alongside them for their entire length. Most notable among these is the Thames Path National Trail which follows the Thames from its source in a Cotswold meadow to the mighty Thames Barrier passing through a multitude of pretty riverside towns and villages as well as the city of Oxford and the great metropolis of London.
Other noteworthy riverside walks include the Severn Way which follows Britain’s longest river from its source in the Welsh mountains to the Bristol Channel and the Test Way which follows England’s premier trout stream from its source in the North Wessex Downs to the Solent.
Canals provide excellent walking. Some feel that they are not natural and, therefore, in some way unworthy of the attention we give to our precious natural landscapes. These miracles of Victorian engineering are very much part of our heritage, provide excellent habitat and encourage biodiversity. They are beautifully adapted for walking too. In the early days canal boats were towed by horses, so there is a towpath next to the canal. Our favourite is the Kennet and Avon canal linking the Thames (by way of the Kennett) with the Avon at the beautiful city of Bath.
Of course, canals can look spectacular in wintertime too.
Estuaries and Coast
As you reach the upper tidal limit of these rivers, they become estuaries and as the walker heads downstream and gets closer to the sea the water becomes more salty and the flora and fauna change. The mighty Thames reaches its tidal limit at Teddington Lock near Richmond-on-Thames.
One of the finest examples is the River Dart which rises as two rivers (the East and West Dart) which meet at Dartmeet before tumbling down off Dartmoor, through stunning Devon countryside to meet the sea at Dartmouth.
Finally, before I move beyond estuaries and out into the open sea, my personal favourite the Tamar. The boundary between Devon and Cornwall. I grew up next to it and miss it every day!
As befits an island sat in the Atlantic Ocean the coastal walking around Great Britain is stunning. As far as footpaths are concerned the ‘jewels in the crown’ are the South West Coast Path (which runs the continuous 620 miles around the South Western tip of England and takes in the coasts of Somerset, Devon, Cornwall and Dorset) and the Wales Coast Path (a continuous walk of 861 miles around the coast of West Wales).
So the advice for whisky and the advice for walking are the same; take more water with it.
From late June the daylight in the northern hemisphere begins to dwindle, imperceptibly at first but as the year progresses through August and September the darkening evenings become ever more noticeable. In late September the Autumnal Equinox is a real ‘milestone’ pointing at the darkening days to come. In late October the United Kingdom puts its clocks back an hour, temporarily extending the morning light at the expense of lighter evenings. For countries as far north as the United Kingdom this means a real lack of daylight. As we approach the winter solstice, even in the south of England the evenings are dark by 4.30 and the mornings don’t lighten until around 7.40. In the north of Scotland you can subtract another hour of daylight.
Even in these days of artificial light and ‘on demand’ heat, food and entertainment, we boreal dwellers look forward keenly to the returning of the light. Imagine how important it would seem to ancient man; no light and only the food stored up from the summer and autumn harvest to sustain you. The lengthening of days, the Winter Solstice, would be more to celebrate than the shortening.
So to prehistoric man the solstices were of huge significance, the turning of the seasons was, quite literally, a matter of life and death. No wonder then that stone circles (time clocks for the midsummer and midwinter) were constructed. Many will be familiar with stonehenge and Avebury but the ‘Celtic Fringe’ of the United Kingdom; Scotland, Wales, Ireland and South West England contains an abundance of stone monuments.
In addition to the stone circles, Dartmoor in Devon and Bodmin Moor in Cornwall are also dotted with ‘stone rows’, straight lines of stones with a similar solar alignment.
It’s not all circles and rows though, other ancient stones are to be found such as Neolithic burial chambers like the West Kennet Long Barrow which has a midwinter solar alignment (although a set of Bronze Age portals now exclude that light).
Some of the most imposing ancient monuments that are found in Cornwall, Wales and Ireland are known as ‘Cromlechs’ (Wales), ‘Quoits’ (Cornwall) and ‘Drumlins’ (Ireland).
These ancient stones are powerful reminders of our ancient ancestors. The effort that must have gone into the construction of these circles, rows, long barrows and cromlechs is incredible and certainly demonstrates a level of social organisation, cohesion and motivation which flies in the face of the perception of prehistoric man as some kind of ‘noble savage’. We should not underestimate them.
So, in our household, the seasonal celebrations will begin early as on the winter solstice, December 21st, we will raise a glass of ‘crimson wonder’ to ‘those that went before’. That still leaves Christmas, New Year and Yule to celebrate.