The Matter of Magpies

I am returning to one of my favourite subjects, and certainly one of my favourite places, for today’s blog post ~ Benhall woods.

According to records, there have been woods of some sort in this area since at least 1230. But the woods that we see today are much more recent. I have lived opposite Benhall park and near the woods, for almost 40 years now.  It is a delight to have such a wild and wonderful place in the heart of our residential area.  It is filled with Silver Birch, hazel and oak trees as well as blackberry bushes.

I used to bring my children here to play when they were very young.  Then, as teenagers, they would play endlessly among the trees, riding their bikes (BMXs in those days), over the natural obstacle course formed long ago by the spoil from the construction of the railway that runs alongside.  The bumps, dips and trenches make a perfect playground and the fallen trees add to the excitement and interest, providing endless hiding places and material for dens.

These days I bring my grandchildren to play in the woods and they love it just as much.  There are always squirrels to spot and birds galore, including owls and woodpeckers that nest high up in the trees. The woodpecker even has a tree named after him as he has pecked so many holes in it. Smaller birds then nest in these holes. We regularly see a very arrogant Buzzard sitting on the ground, or pestering the life out of the other birds who angrily chase it off.

There is a stream running alongside the woods through the park.  In the stream there are ‘millers’ thumb’ fish, and sometimes a heron or a great egret fishing for them!

In spring there is a carpet of snowdrops growing around the edges of the wood, followed later by banks of bluebells in wild areas where nettles flourish.

But I want to focus on a strange event that I observed recently in the woods.

Even when I do not have the grandchildren, I have to take my dog for a walk, and she loves the woods. We go in all winds and weathers and always feel relaxed and at ease among the sturdy trunks.

But one day recently the woods seemed different, darker, and more threatening. I have heard of the mysterious event referred to as a, ‘parliament of magpies’, but I had never experienced it before now. The canopy of every tree in the woods was literally alive with magpies. I have often seen one or two and sometimes up to 12 in the nearby fields, but I have never seen this many all in one place. There were dozens of them and they were not happy to have me and my dog wandering about in the woods. I clearly felt as if I were interrupting them by my presence. They grew very agitated flying from tree to tree, swooping and squawking loudly, as if to scare us away. And, I have to say it worked! I felt most uncomfortable and was worried in case they attacked my dog or me! So, we hastily left the woods and I swear that I heard a sigh of satisfaction as we did.

There are all sorts of folk tales, superstitions and nursery rhymes about birds in general and magpies in particular. As a child I would hold my collar if I saw a magpie until I saw a second one, to avoid bad luck. And I still remember the old rhyme

One for sorrow, Two for joy

Three for a girl, and four for a boy

Five for silver, six for gold

Seven for a secret never to be told ….

You may know more verses and I’d love to hear your tales about magpies. Meanwhile enjoy my photos of the woods throughout the year.

For those of you interested in history and heritage ~ When I first arrived in my little corner of the Cotswolds 50 years ago it was a very rural scene.   I lived on the edge of the countryside with farms and fields all around. There was some post war prefabricated housing nearby, and a few ancient cottages such as Redgrove Cottages and Arle Court Lodge. All of these still exist. There was one unobtrusive industrial area with factories linked to the aviation industry, and their offices were in a manor house known as Arle Court. The manor was built in the mid1800s to replace the Butt family’s original Elizabethan house of the same name. In 1935 Sir George Dowty purchased and restored the house, and it became the heart of the Dowty Aircraft business. You can read more about it here

https://www.dowtyheritage.org

A Final Flood of Colours

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I was saddened to hear this week of the death of the brilliant, and very amusing writer, poet and critic, Clive James.

I have only one link to Clive James, and that is our deep love for Japanese Maple trees!  I wrote the following post some time ago and rather eerily, I was rushed into hospital with pneumonia and sepsis on the day that Clive James died.

Drained and sitting weakly by the window, I feel a cleansing warm breeze waft through the open door, cooling me down. I hear the maple tree shiver to the chinking of delicate chimes. That tree is my pride and joy, a foliate friend, a deciduous delight. At 12 feet tall it is unbridled and bushy. It is not like those at garden centres. This is a thoroughbred tree, the debutante of the Acer world, a Palmatum in its prime. Grown from first generation seed gathered at Westonbirt Arboretum, I have nurtured it for years.   It started life in a humble yoghurt pot in the dark. It progressed to a plant pot on the windowsill then a tub on the patio. At three, petite and pretty, it seemed perfectly happy in its miniature world. But, by the time we moved house ten years ago, I felt it was ready for its own space in the earth. I was careful to plant it in a sheltered spot as Acers hate wind on their leaves. And, judging by how it has thrived, it seems to have found its niche. It has grown and thrived with masses of branches forming arches and tunnels. I’ve had to sacrifice a conservatory for my maple tree as I couldn’t bear to risk damaging the roots by digging foundations. So, my maple and I will just have to sit together in our shady spot growing old together. But it is worth it just to look forward to autumn when it will be glowing red and gold.

When Clive James discovered that his illness was terminal, he too found solace in a Japanese Acer that his daughter had given him.

He wrote a beautiful poem about it which I have memorised and reproduced for you here, called simply Japanese Maple If you click on the link you can hear Clive read the poem himself:

Your death, near now, is of an easy sort.

So slow a fading out brings no real pain.

Breath growing short

Is just uncomfortable. You feel the drain

Of energy, but thought and sight remain:

 

Enhanced, in fact. When did you ever see

So much sweet beauty as when fine rain falls

On that small tree

And saturates your brick back garden walls,

So many Amber Rooms and mirror halls?

 

Ever more lavish as the dusk descends

This glistening illuminates the air.

It never ends.

Whenever the rain comes it will be there,

Beyond my time, but now I take my share.

 

My daughter’s choice, the maple tree is new.

Come Autumn and its leaves will turn to flame.

What I must do

Is live to see that. That will end the game

For me, though life continues all the same:

 

Filling the double doors to bathe my eyes,

A final flood of colours will live on

As my mind dies,

Burned by my vision of a world that shone

So brightly at the last, and then was gone.

 

It is comforting to know that Clive James saw 5 more autumns with his beloved maple tree. As I recover slowly from pneumonia, I hope that I see many more with mine.

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Were you happiest at 16 or 70?

Were you happiest at 16 or 70?

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There has been a lot in the UK press recently about the newly published results of a study into happiness.  Called the ‘Happy now report’, it suggests that the happiest ages are 16 and 70. 

I’ve written before about when I was 16, “Back in ‘63” and it certainly was a good year for me.

And, now that I’m just over 70, I have to say that I am happy more often than not.  Like everyone, I’ve had my share of ‘ups and downs’ over the years.  I have grieved for family members and close friends who have passed away.  I live with chronic illness and pain.  I worked hard for most of my life and I have a very simple home.  But my happiness is not based on anything physical, financial or material.  It is based entirely on spending time with friends, family, or my dog, and as often as possible, being surrounded by nature.  I think being over 70 brings a certain acceptance and resilience that enables me to set aside any niggling fears, anxieties and disappointments, and just ~ be happy!

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote,

“What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared with what lies within us.”

This weekend for example has been wonderful.  I met 2 dear friends for a walk amongst the snowdrops in Painswick Rococo gardens.  We do this every year around this time and it is always a joy whatever the weather.  Friday was perfect, cold but sunny with no wind. You can enjoy our photos below.

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Then, on Friday evening I met another dear friend to celebrate her birthday, with a simple fish and chip supper.  The company and conversation were more important than the food, although the fish and chips were divine too!

Lastly, on Saturday I had an impromptu ride on a big wheel in Cheltenham with 2 of my wonderful grandchildren and their mum and dad to see the town lit up.

Simple pleasures but honestly, they made me extremely happy.

 

 

 

Reach for the Sky

 

I have written before about the beauty of the Cotswolds but, I simply have to revel again in the variety of things to do and see here this July.  I have had such an interesting week! 

I went up to the Lavender fields at Snowshill to catch a glimpse of the crop before it is picked for processing.  The fields high up in the Cotswolds are baked dry from the relentless heat this summer, but the  lavender can cope with dry conditions so it looked perfect.  I haven’t seen many poppies this year but there are a few scattered about.

 

 

I was thoroughly spoiled by my daughter who took me to Cowley Manor Hotel for a luxurious Spa followed by a scrumptious afternoon tea.  This 19th century manor house has a fascinating history and has had some interesting residents.   In medieval times the manor belonged to Pershore Abbey.  But following the dissolution of the monasteries, it passed to a Royalist supporter, Henry Brett, who built himself a grand house on the land in 1674.   By the 1850’s the land was owned by a London Stockbroker, who built a huge house in the Italianate style on the site of Brett’s house.  This house had fabulous gardens with cascades and lakes running along the River Churn.  Then, in 1895 the manor was bought by James Horlick, the inventor of Horlick’s Malted Milk.  He made lots of changes to the house and extended it greatly.  He added a ballroom and a huge stable block to house his grand coaches and horses.  He also built many of the cottages in the village and planted thousands of trees.  Today he is remembered at the hotel where the restaurant is named Malt in his honour.

 

In the 20th century Cowley Manor had a very chequered history.  For a time during the second world war it was leased to Cheltenham ladies College, presumably for the safety of the ‘gals’!  At the end of the war it was sold to Gloucestershire County Council as offices and an education centre.  I remember going to conferences there as a young teacher in the 1970’s.   But, in the early 1990s there was a macabre twist to the tale of Cowley Manor, when the children of Fred and Rosemary West were placed there by the council’s child protection officers.  It was there that the children kept mentioning their sister Heather being buried under the patio.  But, it would be a year later before the true extent of the infamous couple’s crimes were uncovered.  There was a brief spell when the Manor was used as a nursing home, but by the start of the new millennium it was being converted into the hotel we enjoy today.

Of course, I have been back to my regular haunt of Cotswold Wildlife Park with my little granddaughter.  We made a special trip to see the 3-day old zebra.  We were amazed to see such a young animal frolicking around beside its parents.

 

 

Lastly, at the weekend, I went to celebrate the centenary of the Royal Air Force at the Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) in Fairford.  The sheer excitement of this annual event is hard to describe.  There are single aircraft and whole teams from all over the world on display.  But this year seemed extra special.  For a start we are in the middle of a heatwave so the sky was a perfectly blue backdrop to the aerobatics.  There was very little wind so the pilots were able to perform all their spectacular manoeuvres.  And, because it is the centenary year, there were some unique line-ups commemorating planes through the ages, from the Lancaster Bomber, the Spitfire, and the Tornado through to the Typhoon and the new F35.

It is hard to imagine that the RAF was formed just over 10 years after the very  first powered and controlled flight.  The bravery of the pilots and crew of those early planes is impossible to exaggerate.  At Fairford, we saw a military plane of the future ~ the amazing unmanned MQ-9B SkyGuardian.  It took 24 hours to fly the 3760 miles from North Dakota in the USA to Fairford in the UK.  It was entirely remotely piloted.  I can appreciate the technical genius involved, but I do feel deeply uneasy about the ability to cause death and destruction with clinical precision, remotely! 

Apart from that I found the whole event breathtaking.  I love the deafening roar of the F16s, the glamour of the Red Arrows’ Hawk T1 fast jets, the practical beauty of the new Juno and Jupiter helicopters, the dignity and history of the Avro Lancaster 1, Douglas Dakota 111, Hawker Hurricane 11c, and the Supermarine Spitfire.  We owe them our gratitude.  But for sheer entertainment I really enjoyed the Spanish Airforce acrobatic team, Patrulla Aguila.  They were just amazing and all 7 Aviojets landed together in their signature move.  The Italian Frecce Tricolori were just as spectacular.  All I could do was watch and gasp as they mocked gravity and played with the sky.    I am sure that the routines these display crews perform should be impossible but they do them anyway.  And I loved every minute of it.

Of course my photos are pathetic as everything moved so fast, but I will add a small selection to give you a flavour of the day:

 

 

 

 

 

Cotswold Wildlife Park

 

Thea loves taking photos

One of my favourite places in the Cotswolds is the wildlife park at Burford. It is a very special place to me as the birth and development of the zoo and gardens has run parallel to that of my family.

I dread to think how much money I have spent here over the years, on entry fees, snacks in the café, whippy ice creams, train rides, and the dreaded gift shop! But I believe every penny was well spent for the pleasure it has brought to me and my family.  Not only that, but the money funds lots of conservation work here and abroad.

The wildlife park was opened by John Heyworth during the Easter holidays in 1970, which is just after my first child was born. It is set in the grounds of a beautiful house, Bradwell Grove, which was his childhood home.  In 1970 it cost five shillings (25p) for entry in pre-decimal currency.  These days it costs me £10 as I am officially ancient.  However, as I go so often, I buy a season ticket for £50, which means I can go whenever I like.

Normally the park is open every day except Christmas day. But this year the winter has been so atrocious that the park has been closed on several days due to snow or waterlogged grounds.

Originally there were lots of animals to see including wallabies, tapirs, llamas, hornbills and flamingos. Soon a reptile house was developed.   Then, rhinos and zebras arrived in 1972 when my second child was born.  And, the very popular little railway was opened in 1975 when my third child arrived.  That was followed by insects which I have never been very keen on, and butterflies in glass houses.  Following on from the birth of my fourth and final child, leopards, tigers and bats arrived at the park.

By the time my grandchildren arrived there were lions, giraffes, owls, different types of monkeys, wolves, camels, meerkats and adorable penguins. One of the great attractions these days is the petting area where children can play with goats, sheep, donkeys, pigs and rabbits.  There is also a super adventure playground, which, being an over-anxious granny, I try to steer clear of.

Sadly, John Heyworth died some years ago. He must have been a fascinating man with a great love for animals and plants.  Apparently as a child he kept many pets, including rabbits, grass snakes, slow worms and a toad that he found in the garden.  Over the years, as a schoolboy, he added terrapins, tortoises and newts to his menagerie of birds, ducks and slowworms.

This reminds me of my dear friend and roommate at college, Pat, who kept her own menagerie of assorted hamsters, gerbils and guinea pigs in our tiny room.  She also had a tiny Shetland pony who lived nearby and travelled with us everywhere in the back of a mini with the seats removed!  When we moved to a marginally bigger flat after college, she added snakes, which she kept in the bath!

Nowadays I look after my gorgeous 3-year-old granddaughter, Thea, every Tuesday, and we make a beeline for the wildlife park. Thea’s favourite animal is the white rhino.  This year she was thrilled to meet Belle the little baby rhino.  Belle was born with a leg problem which meant she had to be hand reared and fed from birth.  Thea is very family oriented so she loves to see the mummy and daddy animals with their babies.  I have to say there is something very appealing about seeing large wild animals like rhino, giraffe and zebra breast feeding their small offspring.

I believe our wildlife park visits have nurtured a great love and respect for animals in all of my children and grandchildren.  Here are some of our photos taken over the years and as recently as this week.

 

 

 

The Long and Winding Road

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I chose this title from the song by the Beatles because I do find myself very drawn to taking meandering pathways through the countryside these days.  Paul McCartney sounds incredibly melancholy, as he sings it, and I know there was a lot of sadness in his life when he wrote it.

The long and winding road is a great metaphor for life actually.  In fact, I am reading a memoir with this title by Alan Johnson, who was a member of Parliament in the UK.  He wrote in his first book, The Boy, about his harrowing childhood but in The Long and Winding Road he writes about his meteoric rise in the labour party to become Home Secretary in 2009.  With his ‘upbringing’, it is astonishing that he enjoyed such success in politics, which nowadays seems to be dominated by Old Etonians.   Like most people, the road through my life has been been very varied.  There have been some very rocky bits where I stumbled and fell with a bump.  There have been icy cold patches when I felt abandoned and alone.  There have been muddy bits where I got bogged down in troubles and cares.  There have been dark stretches where I was afraid.  There have been forks in the road where I sometimes made what turned out to be the wrong choice.  And, just once, the road was blocked altogether and I was unable to carry on.  But mostly, the road has just been long and gently winding, so even though I couldn’t see where I was going, I knew I had to keep moving forward.

These days I look on long and winding roads purely for pleasure.

I dream of walking along a coast road, like those in Cornwall or Dorset, with the sun on my back.  Or rambling through the villages and farmland along the Cotswold Way when the rapeseed is in its golden glory.  But a jaunt through parkland and woods with my dog and the grandchildren will do just as well.  In fact, now that I’m retired and my children are happy, independent adults, I don’t mind where the long and winding road takes me.

The photo is of my daughter with her dog walking through the woods near her home in California.   I expect, like all of us, she is just a face in the crowd to passers by when she strays from her corner of the world.  But of course, to me, it matters not where she is; we will always be connected by our great loves ~ of dogs, of being in nature ~ and of each other.

Enjoy some long and winding road photos.

 

 

 

 

A City in a Forest

Souls entwined at the Peace Pagoda

This weekend I visited relatives who live in Willen, very close to the North Lake.  Willen is one of the dozen or so ancient villages that were absorbed when the new town of Milton Keynes was built 50 years ago.  I remember driving through the area with my father when the town was being built.  I was fascinated by the ‘grid system’ of the roads, horrified by the number of roundabouts and underpasses, and amazed by the number of tree-lined cycle paths.  Driving through the city again this weekend, I was amused by the street names, delighted by the beauty of the trees and parks, and relieved to see that some of the old villages have still retained their individual identity and historic buildings.

My dream house

There are two lakes in Willen, North and South and both are beautiful in very different ways.   South Lake, and the park it is set in, is a hive of activity.  On the lake there are facilities for water sports like canoeing, sailing, windsurfing, and paddle sports, as well as an area for fishing.  In the park there are areas for golfing, cycling, football, table tennis, aerial adventures, jogging and gymnastics; as well as a wonderful children’s adventure playground.

In total contrast, North Lake is set in the most serene park I have ever visited.  It is a designated and protected wildlife and nature reserve and there are waders and waterfowl galore.  There is also a Peace Pagoda, the first ever built in Western Europe.   It was built by monks and nuns of the Nipponzan Myoholi as a symbol of world peace and is meant to promote unity among all the peoples of the world regardless of race, creed, or border.   It opened in September 1980.   In front of the pagoda stand two creatures from Japanese legend.   Shishi, the paired lion-dogs are said to have magical powers that repel evil.

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Near the pagoda is the Buddhist Temple as well as Japanese and Zen gardens.   There is such an air of serenity around the pagoda and the Temple.  It draws me to it.

Near the temple is a medicine wheel of stones, which looks a bit like the ancient stone circle at Avebury.   It is said that a ley line passes through this area and close by is a single ‘needle’ stone that catches the rising midsummer sun.  There certainly are a lot of mystical and spiritual influences in the area of Willen and Milton Keynes.  If you are interested you can read more at this link.

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There is so much to see on and around the lake.  I was very impressed by all the artwork.  There is a fascinating Labyrinth and a beautiful pure white memorial statue named ‘Souls in Love’.  The sight of this statue aligned with a pure white swan and the white peace pagoda gleaming in the setting sun was totally stunning.  Of course my photos, taken with my phone, don’t do it justice; but I hope you enjoy them anyway.

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While I was at the lakeside I saw waders and waterfowl galore, as well as the most spectacular murmuration of starlings as dusk fell.  A group of ‘twitchers’ with very impressive cameras was gathered at the edge of the lake to watch the amazing aerial display.  There must have been thousands of birds flying so close together that they seem to move as one.  I watched them swoop and soar as they selected just the right spot to roost for the night.  As they got closer and the sky got darker, the sound of their wings was deafening, then silence fell as they all settled.  The whole spectacle was breathtaking, a beautiful ballet.  Do watch this video if you have never witnessed a murmuration or check out these fabulous photos from the Guardian.

All in all a very enjoyable weekend.

Layers of Leaves

Layers of Leaves

I can’t resist the photos of my grandchildren, layered in clothes, playing in layers of leaves in the woodland.  Autumn has arrived in the Cotswolds, and it is certainly a magical time of year.

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Layers of leaves lie

Overwhelming the senses

Deep in the forest

 

 

 

Walk this Way

Walk this Way

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Almost the end of the summer here in the UK and Autumn is definitely in the air.  So, I went with the grandchildren to Westonbirt Arboretum.  The arboretum is so popular that the car park was overflowing, but once inside the woodland is so vast that it didn’t seem crowded at all.   The aim of the visit was to go on the Gruffalo trail but we found that a bit disappointing.

However, a new experience for us was the bridge-like structure which takes visitors right up into the canopy of the trees.  The bridge is very cleverly built with angled slats on the sides so that even the smallest children or wheelchair users can see the trees every step of the way.  At intervals, there are viewpoints like ‘crow’s nests’ with information and pictures of the wildlife you can find.  Some of the wildlife was a bit too realistic as there were swarms of bees building hives in some trees!

Up there on the walkway you get a totally different view of, and perspective on the 15,000 trees from all around the world which thrive there.

All around the arboretum there are woodcarvings and buildings created from the trees in the woods.  They are magnificent.  But the grandchildren’s favourite was in the adventure play area.  There was a sea theme with a huge pirate ship, small canoes, sharks and fish, all carved from the wood.   The grandchildren loved it and I can’t wait to go back in Autumn when the trees have turned golden and red.

Wooden Walkway and other structures at Westonbirt

Trees are structures just made for climbing up and over, or jumping off!

The Western Red cedar is a spectacular structure

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And lastly,  a woodcarving

A crocodile in the corner

 

There is a fascinating corner of the Cotswold’s in Compton Abdale with a very unusual spring, which a respected builder from the nearby village of Hazleton built from Cotswold Stone in the 19th Century.  Presumably some local landowner paid for it.  The feature is shaped like a crocodile’s head and the spring water has been gushing out of the crocodile’s mouth ever since.  Some days after lots of heavy rain, it is a truly spectacular sight.

I wish I could capture the sound of the pure rushing water for you but my photos will have to do.

I marvel at the fact that nature produces a constant supply of fresh water for us here.  Would that other parts of the world were so lucky.

The Cotswold Lion

The Cotswold Lion

 

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Cotswold Lions at Prinknash Abbey farm

‘In Europe the best wool is English and in England the best wool is Cotswold’
(12th century saying).

This week I am thinking about texture.  

There are two types of texture, actual texture which you can feel or touch, and visual texture which uses marks to give the illusion of a textured surface.  It fascinates me that the word texture originated from from the Latin textilis ~ woven, from texere ~ to weave and the 17th century word Textile has the same root.  A textile is literally ‘that which has been woven’.   So this weekend I set out to learn more about it.

There can’t be a more random selection of textures than stone, wool, water, grass and brass; however, there is a link!  And it is at the heart of this beautiful area I live in called the Cotswolds.

The Cotswold land is ideal for sheep grazing and in medieval times the Abbeys and Monasteries kept huge flocks of the native breed, which was, and still is, known as the Cotswold Lion, because it has a long shaggy mane over its eyes.  These are stocky animals that breed well and grow quickly.  Their wool is so long, fine, white and soft that it was known as the ‘golden fleece’ ~ because of the wealth it created, not the colour.

From the earliest times the wool itself was traded, but by the middle ages whole cottage industries grew up to process the wool into cloth.  The clothier and his family prepared the raw wool then gave it to his neighbours to be spun by the women and children.  It was then woven by men in their homes.  The weavers’ cottages had long, low windows in order to give maximum light to the looms.  After processing the cloth was extremely dense and almost waterproof due to the nap, which was ideal for the military, huntsmen and landowners.

The merchants who traded in this fine cloth became extremely wealthy. They used their wealth to build wonderful houses out of the local Cotswold stone and to build and furnish exquisite churches in the market towns and villages, with stained glass, stone carvings and brasses.

Yes, the rolling fields, honey coloured stone cottages, ancient mills and beautiful churches that make up our landscape are all here because of sheep.  The names of the villages such as Sheepscombe reflect the trade, and even our pubs and inns like the Fleece or the Ram are reminiscent of the wool trade.

I visited the church of St. Peter and St. Paul at Northleach today.  It is one of the largest and finest wool churches in England.  There are some fascinating brasses in this church with images of the merchants with sacks of wool or sheep as their footrest.  They date back to the 1400s.  One or two of the brasses were particularly interesting as they showed that women could be wealthy merchants too.  And, one particularly striking couple had their 15 children shown on the brass!

By the 16th century the industry was moving away from the small towns and villages to be nearer to the Stroud valley where the fast-flowing streams supplied the power to drive the fulling mills.  In its heyday, there were around 200 mills in the Stroud valley and many of them are still standing today.  They are converted for other industrial uses now or renovated into rather swish apartments.

I learned some fascinating facts today.  Who knew that subsequent to the ‘Burial in Wool acts of 1667 and 1668’, all bodies had to be buried in wool unless they died of plague.  This law was only repealed in 1814.  It stated that,

“No corps should be buried in anything other than what is made of sheep’s wool only; or put into any coffin lined or faced with any material but sheep’s wool, on pain of forfeiture of £5.”

The old saying – “You can’t pull the wool over my eyes”, came from being buried in a shroud of wool, and meant that “I am not dead!”

You may know that there is a large wool-stuffed cushion or seat covered in red cloth in the House of Lords.  This is called the Woolsack and is where the Lord Speaker sits during Parliamentary proceedings with the Mace on the woolsack behind him.  It was introduced by King Edward III (1327-77) and originally stuffed with English wool as a reminder of England’s traditional source of wealth – the wool trade.  There is also a larger woolsack where senior Judges sit during the State Opening of Parliament.

Here are some photos from Northleach where wealthy cloth merchant John Fortey paid for the church renovations

 

Here are some photos from Bibury where wool was treated on Rack isle

 

And lastly some photos from Nailsworth where the Fulling Mills refined the texture of the cloth.

 

And lastly, to the pub, The Fleece at Bretforton!

 

I could write so much more, but if you are interested I can recommend these very knowledgeable and interesting websites:

http://www.cotswoldjourneys.com/cotswolds-guide/the-cotswolds-wool-trade/

http://stroud-textile.org.uk/history/background-to-the-local-wool-industry/

 

Cotswold Collage

Cotswold Spring2

Someone asked me this week if I could recommend places to visit in the Cotswolds for some travellers from USA. Well I am always delighted to boast about just how special the Cotswolds are so I decided to use this as the basis of my weekly photo challenge theme, which is ‘Collage’.

Of course, the best way to truly get to know the Cotswolds is to walk the Cotswold Way.  This walk is literally 100 miles of quintessentially English countryside.  It stretches from Chipping Camden to Bath, taking in picture-perfect villages and ancient sites of historic interest.  The entire area is designated as a place of outstanding natural beauty.

There are bus tours and mini-bus tours of the Cotswolds from towns like Stratford, which I would heartily recommend if you don’t mind being herded with the crowds.  However, if money is no object, I would recommend one of the expert private tour companies who provide beautiful cars and knowledgeable drivers.  They will plan a tour to reflect your interests, whether they be literary, historical, sporting, spiritual, or whatever.

You could even discover the area on horseback, glide along the rivers and canals on a boat trip, or fly over it in a hot air balloon or helicopter.

But for lucky people who live in the Cotswolds, we can spend a lifetime enjoying the scenery and discovering fascinating facts about the people and places that made the area what it is today.

There are honey coloured thatched stone cottages dotted around villages such as Wick and Winchcombe; Stately homes, Castles and Palaces like Sudeley, Warwick and Blenheim; Abbeys, Monasteries, Cathedrals and ancient Churches like Tewkesbury, Prinknash, Gloucester and Ampney St Mary.

There are also glorious rolling hills and farmland bordered by dry stone walls, where healthy sheep graze.  Much of the area’s wealth arose from the wool these hardy sheep produced.

There are also majestic forests, ancient oak woodland and more recently planted specimen trees at Westonbirt Arboretum.  And if gardens are your thing, we are spoilt for choice with Hidcote and Kiftsgate among many others, which include Prince Charles’s own garden at Highgrove.

The Cotswolds also has plenty for the water lovers, with beautiful rivers, canals, docks, quays and lakes.  The great River Thames actually starts in the Cotswolds and we have the tidal River Severn that flows to the sea.

If that is enough to entice you to visit the Cotswolds I will now add a collage of my photos…

 

Bridging the years

Benhall Woods Bridge

This fallen tree bridges a deep dip in Benhall woods.  As I walk there each day with my little dog, Toffee, it also bridges the years and the generations for me.

I have lived opposite Benhall park and woods for over 30 years now.  It is a delight to have such a wild and wonderful place in the heart of a residential area.  It is filled with Silver Birch, hazel and oak trees as well as blackberry bushes.

I used to bring my children here to play when they were very young.  Then, as teenagers they would play endlessly among the trees, riding their bikes (BMXs in those days) over the natural obstacle course formed long ago by the spoil from the construction of the railway that runs alongside.  The bumps, dips and trenches make a perfect playground and the fallen trees add to the excitement and interest, providing endless hiding places and material for dens.

These days I bring my grandchildren to play in the woods and they love it just as much.  There are always squirrels to spot and birds galore, including owls and woodpeckers that nest high up in the trees.

There is a stream running alongside the woods through a lovely park.  In the stream there are ‘millers’ thumb’ fish, and this week I saw a Great Egret fishing for them!

In spring there was a carpet of snowdrops around the edges of the wood followed later by banks of bluebells in wild areas where nettles flourish.

I love the place.

Recently there has been a lot of controversy because the local council want to allow trainee tree surgeons to practice cutting down trees in the wood.  I have to say I have mixed feelings about this.  I do love the wildness of the wood, but, I can see some work has been carried out to good effect.

One of the saddest aspects of the wood is the tragic suicides that have taken place there in recent years.  A young man hanged himself there some years ago.  Then, tragically, a 15-year-old boy did in 2015 after possibly being bullied.  And a 29-year-old woman sadly did the same last November while suffering from depression.

Since then I notice lots of the lower branches have been removed from the trees, making them difficult to climb and so less likely to be used for this sad purpose.

 

“Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire”

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Beached

For this week’s, WPC theme of ‘danger’, I thought I could post my daughter’s photo of the injured seal that had worn itself out and washed itself up on the beach near Santa Cruz, where she lives.  It was in grave danger until Lisa called Marine Rescue, who turned up quickly and returned to poor creature safely into the ocean.

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There was also a photo of a skunk walking down the garden path between Lisa and her front door!  Skunks are notoriously aggressive, unafraid of humans, carry diseases and smell disgusting.  She was in great danger of being attacked or sprayed as she carried her shopping in from the car.

But then, as I was reading Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice for my Open University course, I suddenly realised just how much danger some persecuted individuals or groups have faced, over the centuries.

In the Merchant of Venice, it is Shylock who is hated for being Jewish.  Shakespeare explores this brilliantly as only he can.  But it reminded me of places I have visited where evidence of the dangers of being Jewish is still clearly visible, or just below the surface.

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Wrought Iron Star of David on the Cemetery gate in Krakow

Last year I visited a little Catalan town called Empuriabrava.  In the old town, I was horrified by the evidence of past abuse of Jews. There was a cemetery dedicated specifically to those who had been coerced into converting to Christianity.
“On 18th February, 1417 more than 100 people were baptised at the font of the Basilica of Santa Maria, surrounded by their godfathers and authorities.
In 1415, there was the first wave of mass conversions to Christianity as a result of the Perpignan ordinations driven by Benedict X111, known as “Papa Luna”. From that moment on, the converted Jews were buried in a delimited space of the Christian cemetery. The cemetery was attached to the Northern wall of the apse of the basilica. This area has been known for centuries as “the cemetery for the converted Jews”. Nowadays part of the old cemetery is occupied by the Cappella del Santissim, built in 1724, and the other part has been restored as a pedestrian walkway. “
It is a beautiful, peaceful town now but I have to say the references and reminders of those dark times were everywhere, and quite menacing.

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wrought iron representing barbed wire on the cemetery wall

At Gettysberg, Maj. Gen. Joshua L Chamberlain said,

“On great fields, something stays.  Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; buts spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision – place of souls”.

I knew exactly what he meant when I travelled to Krakow in Poland.

The city of Krakow is beautiful, compact, well preserved and a joy to walk around.  But my visit to the old Jewish quarter in Kazimierz as well as my visit to Schindler’s Enamel factory in Zablocie, which is now a museum, was a revelation.  It happened that I was there on 14thMarch 2012, 69 years to the day of the “final purge”.  The fact that this holocaust happened within living memory is horrific.  The fact that slaughter of innocents on this scale may be happening in parts of the world today is unbearable.

There were about 225,000 Jews living in Krakow before the war but only about 15,000 managed to survive it with the help of brave Poles who kept them hidden, and the enigmatic German Oskar Schindler who needed the cheap labour force they provided.

In March 1941, all Krakow Jews who previously lived in areas such as Kazimierz were forced to live in the new ghetto of Podgorze. The area comprised 320 buildings which had been home to the poorest Poles.  Almost 17000 Jews were now crammed into these buildings and the area was surrounded by barbed wire and walls.  By the autumn of 1941 the jobless Jews who did not have the correct paperwork were transported to concentration camps or shot where they stood.

On March 13-14th 1943 the final extermination was begun.  The first-hand accounts of the few who survived these events were recorded and can be heard at the Schindler factory which is now a museum.  I heard that the remaining men were separated from the women and children.  They were marched off to be used as forced labour.  Any who could not walk unaided were shot on the spot.  Then German soldiers went through the buildings clearing out the women and children to be loaded onto transport which would take them to the extermination camps.  Children and babies were just thrown out of the windows onto the waiting carts, not all landed safely.  The sick and elderly were just killed where they lay.
Literally thousands of Jews were loaded onto transport to the Plaszow camp where they gradually died from starvation, beating, disease, hard labour or execution.   Thousands of others were taken to the extermination camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau over the next few months.   The Auschwitz archives record the fate of those transported.  In February 1944 the remaining men arrived, in May the rest of the children and in August the women.  They all died in the gas chambers shortly afterwards.  The final transport of prisoners from Krakow arrived in Auschwitz the day before the camp was liberated by the Soviet army.
For a harrowing first hand eyewitness account of all the deportations including the final purge there is the memoir, The Cracow Ghetto Pharmacy by Tadeusz Pankiewicz.

Here are some photos from the displays at the Schindler factory or the Jewish Museum which touched me greatly.  They show families and groups of Jews being taken or led away from the ghetto to the camps.  They had to carry whatever they could and abandon the rest.  The last picture shows the Plaszow Camp between 1943-44 where women are being marched to forced labour.

 

Bluebells with the Brontes

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While taking my little dog, Toffee, for her walks this week, I have been thinking about WPC’s cue for my blog ~ ‘Earth’.

It struck me as I wandered across the park and through the woods near my home, just how marvellous the earth is at recovering from what nature, and we humans, subject it to.

We had a short cold spell when the grass was covered in frost and the earth in the woods was as hard as rock underfoot and twisted ankles were a real danger.  Then as the long and wet winter dragged on, the grass became waterlogged and sodden, and the woods were a quagmire with mud.  But through it all, the snowdrop, crocus and daffodil bulbs survived, and bloomed.  When the weather turned milder a few weeks ago, the blackthorn hedgerows were covered in blossom and the daisies started to appear.  Then, just in time for Easter, the sun came out and transformed everything.

Suddenly the grass over the park is green and dry and covered in bright yellow dandelions alongside the daisies.  In the woods the mud has dried up and carpets of bluebells have miraculously appeared in vast swathes of violet among the weeds, ferns and tree roots.  The smell is wonderful and indescribable.

I can see why they are called the fairy flower, they are just so delicate and beautiful and seemingly appear from nowhere.  They seem to speak of childhood and innocence.

As I wandered with my puppy, a poem started to form in my mind.  Then it struck me that many poets, including Shakespeare, have crafted lovely verse about Bluebells, which I could never match.

So, I will include a couple of my favourites here from the Bronte sisters.

Firstly, a really poignant poem by Anne Bronte who suffered so much sadness in her adult life and died far too young.

A fine and subtle spirit dwells
In every little flower,
Each one its own sweet feeling breathes
With more or less of power.

There is a silent eloquence
In every wild bluebell
That fills my softened heart with bliss
That words could never tell.

Yet I recall not long ago
A bright and sunny day,
‘Twas when I led a toilsome life
So many leagues away;

That day along a sunny road
All carelessly I strayed,
Between two banks where smiling flowers
Their varied hues displayed.

Before me rose a lofty hill,
Behind me lay the sea,
My heart was not so heavy then
As it was wont to be.

Less harassed than at other times
I saw the scene was fair,
And spoke and laughed to those around,
As if I knew no care.

But when I looked upon the bank
My wandering glances fell
Upon a little trembling flower,
A single sweet bluebell.

Whence came that rising in my throat,
That dimness in my eye?
Why did those burning drops distil —
Those bitter feelings rise?

O, that lone flower recalled to me
My happy childhood’s hours
When bluebells seemed like fairy gifts
A prize among the flowers,

Those sunny days of merriment
When heart and soul were free,
And when I dwelt with kindred hearts
That loved and cared for me.

I had not then mid heartless crowds
To spend a thankless life
In seeking after others’ weal
With anxious toil and strife.

‘Sad wanderer, weep those blissful times
That never may return!’
The lovely floweret seemed to say,
And thus it made me mourn.

And one by her sister Emily, who also died tragically young:

The Bluebell is the sweetest flower
That waves in summer air:
Its blossoms have the mightiest power
To soothe my spirit’s care.

I was going to write a learned post about Shakespeare and Bluebells but then I thought I could just add this link about the bard’s garden.

Then I thought I could write about the beauty of bluebells but then I realised that I could never match this one by bookishnature

So I think I will just post photos of bluebells from my walks with Toffee instead!

 

As Green as the Grass

As Green as the Grass

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What a fascinating theme for this week’s photo challenge, the colour green is.

I chose the featured image, showing the flag of the United Kingdom, which I took in Willersey during the Queen’s 90th birthday celebrations, as a mark of respect for those who died or were seriously injured as a result of a supposed terrorist attack in Westminster on Wednesday.  My heart goes out to all of them but especially the policeman who was murdered doing his job of controlling access to the Houses of Parliament.  My nephew is a member of the Metropolitan police and knowing what a wonderful person he is, I expect that PC Keith Palmer was equally dedicated to his duty of keeping the public and our members of Parliament safe.  He did not deserve to die like that and his memory will be treasured by everyone who cares about the values of democracy; peace, freedom, human rights, the rule of law.

I’m not really a green person fashionably speaking as I don’t think I suit the colour. I do try to be green ecologically in that I recycle or reuse whatever I can and I try not to waste anything.  I guess I am green emotionally as I am a pushover for a charitable cause if it is anything to do with children, or people in distress through poverty, illness or homelessness.  Physically, I have to admit that most fish dishes can turn me green as can anything with peppers in as I am allergic to them.  This is quite a problem when eating out these days as most salads, and a lot of cooked dishes, seem to have peppers in them cunningly disguised in some cases as tomatoes or cucumber.

But thankfully all the WPC requested this week was a single photo or a gallery of photos reflecting the colour green. This is a joy to me as I live in an area of outstanding natural beauty, and I love taking photos.  I love the green rolling hills of the Cotswolds, the fresh green fields of the sheep folds and cattle farms, the wild greenery of the hedgerows and roadsides, the manicured lawns of the stately homes, and the lush planting in much loved cottage gardens.  They all make wonderful backdrops to any photo. But most of all I love trees.  There really is no manufactured or digitally created frame that can improve on a picture framed by trees in my opinion.

I have included photos that I have taken on various days out or holidays too so they are not all of the Cotswolds, or even the UK!

So here below is a gallery of green for you to enjoy…

Greenery framing lovely buildings…

Green enhancing the view…

Green as a backdrop for animals…

snowdrop time

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One of the best things about this time of year in the UK is the abundance of spring flowers that battle their way through the cold wet earth. In my garden the hellebores have been flowering since Christmas, the snowdrops all through February, and the daffodils popped out as March poured in.  This is something of a miracle as I was sure my little puppy had destroyed them all with her frantic digging.  But thankfully they survived her and Storm Doris.

In the park opposite my little bungalow there are banks of snowdrops growing beside a stream, clumps of crocuses among the trees, and a touching display of daffodils that appeared in 2010 spelling out, “Will You Marry Me?”  I walk my dog there every day.

But for a really impressive display I have to go a little further into the Cotswold countryside and take a walk around the Rococo Gardens at Painswick  or Colesbourne Park.

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This year the road taken had to be meticulously planned and carefully executed as my husband came with me to both places. He has been using a wheelchair for the last 18 months due to his medical conditions and the debilitating effects of his treatment.  But over the last two months he has made great progress and started walking indoors with some mobility aids.  He has done so well that I was determined to take him to see the snowdrops.  This would be his first walk in the great outdoors.  It was a bit difficult in some places due to uneven ground or slopes, but together we did it.  Fortunately there were lots of places to rest on the road taken.  It was a lovely afternoon out for us both.

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Leaving my husband to rest on a seat in the Rococo Gardens, I wandered down a gravel path and came across a most unusual sight.  A fairy castle inspired by Schloss Neuschwanstein in Bavaria was carved on top of a fallen birch tree.  According to the label it was created by chainsaw sculptor, Denius Parson.  It really was impressive.

I was joined on my walk, as I often am, by a friendly robin.  I enjoyed the sights as he hopped about bending his head to watch me.  There were banks of snowdrops in every direction, with little clumps of cyclamen and hellebore dotted about, and daffodils just beginning to show.

Enjoy my spring photos from the Rococo Garden.  It was dull and drizzly and the sun was setting by the time we left but the photos show the abundance of snowdrops …

 

 

 

 

Burford Wildlife Park

 

We are truly spoilt for choice in our local area for interesting places to go.  I am so lucky to have grandchildren who I can use as an excuse for going to all the farm parks, forests, steam railways and adventure playgrounds.

There certainly wasn’t anything like that where I grew up in the North of England.  My playground was the shipyards on the River Tyne, abandoned coal mines, or the sand dunes and castle ruins on the North Sea Coast.

The child in me can never get enough of our local Wildlife Park at Burford.  It is so well run and the animals are the first priority.  It is such a joy to see the beautifully maintained grounds and healthy happy animals living as naturally as it is possible and safe for them to be.  I have a season ticket there and go as often as I can with the grandchildren.