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.