Wednesday, 16 April 2014

A Regrettable Failure to Consult

Finally, the Bluebells are returning and once again the woodland floors are being carpeted in azure. In a previous article on Bluebells, several disgruntled gardeners bemoaned the clumsy intrusion of the hooligan Spanish cousins of the delicate pale native English version of these charming flowers.
Some people (and even organisations) insist, Luddite-like on planting only native trees, and while this might, occasionally, seem an admirable determination – most people do not realise what this kind of resolve excludes. Apple trees, for instance are not native to the UK, so these beauties would be barred by default.
I wonder what these people would think about the idea of reintroducing apex predators, such as bears and wolves, into the UK countryside. Wild Boar have already accidentally reintroduced themselves and I’m sure that a few large carnivores would give an added exciting edge to any family picnic.
I do actually prefer the Traditional English Bluebell but I am not so obsessed that I would pull up Spanish or hybrid plants in our garden. Change and evolution is normal in the world, it cannot really be stopped, despite the common human desire to want to control nature.
Bluebells, Purplebells and Whitebells
On the subject of controlling nature; improvements are being made to the Octavia Road Open Space access and the Monks Path, presumably by the well-meaning council. In the process, approximately 10 mature apple trees have been needlessly felled. I spotted this regrettable and avoidable carnage when visiting the Community Orchard with my children, to judge when to organise a Blossom Walk. I wish the powers that be, would communicate and think about consulting first. If they initially discussed procedures with the people who care about these things; it would have been far better to prune the trees and improve access to them for the benefit of everyone.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Cherry Blossom Blooms

Spring is now thoroughly engaged, the air is warmer and the cherry blossom is showing through in many places. The bees are buzzing and the butterflies fluttering.
The initial bloom of Plum and Blackthorn is now fading and the young fruit is already developing nicely.
I recently visited Transylvania in Romania (to coach Wing Chun) and was delighted to note that most gardens both in the city and the more rustic countryside were positively stuffed with fruit trees. Of course it was Springtime, so it was easy to spot all the beautiful fresh blossom on the trees.
It will not belong before we can organise our yearly Blossom Walk at the Mansbridge Community Orchard, so keep your eyes peeled for further announcements.
Don't Touch That Dial!

Monday, 17 March 2014

Birthday at Badbury

It felt like the first day of Spring, and we made the most of it. The incessant rain and relentless wind had abated and, as if by arrangement (it was February and my birthday), the sun came out. You could feel the warmth of it on your face or back... What a blessed relief.
I had often wanted to visit Badbury Rings, an ancient hill-fort with archaeological antiquities dating back over 6000 years. It is fairly close to the small town of Wimborne Minster and has very well defined, steep embankments. The central area is now wooded with Oak, Pine and even the odd Walnut tree. Badbury is magnificently well preserved and it’s easy to see why it is a very popular spot with local dog walkers and children.
When we arrived we ran straight up the central axis of the fort, clambering up and tumbling down the banks. Once we reached the central area, where the trees are, we also found a couple of ponds. The children wandered off, to find a suitable tree to carve their names into. 
I took a scenic route and wound out in the opposite direction to the encircling rings. I figured that if I walked the circumference, I would find them eventually.
The children and I also explored the set of three barrows nearby. On the way over to them we found lots of empty walnut shells, presumably collected by rabbits. Curiously, we also found Walnuts on St Catherine’s Hill near Winchester, a couple of years ago.
After we had eaten our picnic lunch we set off to see another interesting site that I had spotted on the map. Knowlton Henge did not disappoint. It is a considerably smaller and a much more kept site than Badbury, but no less impressive. A low bank surrounds the area and in the centre is a tiny ruined Norman chapel. Very atmospheric.
At one end there is a yew tree that hippies have decorated with ribbons. And nearby is a large mound with trees on it, it looks too big to be a barrow, but not on the same massive scale as Silbury. Apparently, the visible Henge is only a small part of a much larger structured landscape and barrows that existed before the local farm was established.
I spotted a chap with home-made dowsing rods, something I had not seen or even heard of since I watched Blue Peter as a child. I asked him if he would explain what he was doing, to the children and he kindly let them have a go… Soon my son was scampering about tracking ley lines and getting caught in power vortexes.
Pretty soon though, I grew tired of Michael’s post-modern grab bag of internet based conspiracy theories and slipped off to take some photos; here though, I found people apparently worshipping trees! 
Finally we popped into Wimborne Minster, for a quick look around before going home. It is a lovely little town stuffed full of independent shops and smiling people; maybe the ley lines and energetic chakras keep them happy. Either way, the henge site and town look well worth a return visit at some point. Obviously, I will need to make some dowsing rods first...

Friday, 7 March 2014

Plum Blossom and Blackthorn Bloom

You know Spring is on the way when you spot the first bloom of white and pink Plum Blossom in the hedgerows.
The white Blossom with its small, delicate five petalled flowers, suddenly brings life back to the city roads and countryside.
It can be difficult to tell the difference between Plum and Blackthorn blossom. The Blackthorn will, of course, bear Sloes next Autumn.
The simple way to tell the difference is to plunge your arm vigorously into the bush and wriggle it about. 
If it is covered in bloody scratches when you retrieve it, odds are it was a Blackthorn... The clue is in the name ;-)
Of course, you could simply marvel at the beauty that nature brings and remember where the plums will be in a couple of months. 
It always brings a smile to my face, when the warmer weather finally takes hold...

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Boiling Sands in Spring

Thick drifts of snowdrops send a reminder of colder Winters, but Spring is definitely coming. The signs are everywhere. Colourful crocuses are popping up by the roadside. The first daffodils are trumpeting in warmer weather. I have even seen early Plum blossom in Hedge End where I work.
This weekend though, we were looking for a different type of Spring. We were hunting for the source of the river Hamble. The Hamble’s tidal estuary exits into the Solent and is Hampshire’s premier yachting mecca. Some of the older readers of this blog may remember the TV series Howard's Way, which was filmed there.
The source of the Hamble (a group of natural springs) can be found near the town of Bishops Waltham, in the Moors nature reserve. It is known locally as Sand Boils or the Boiling Sands and it is quite an exciting discovery when you first discover it. 

A strange phenomenon occurs where chalk aquifers meet clay and sand but geology lesson aside – when you look into a shallow stream basin, true to name, the water appears to be boiling! 
Sand on the bottom of the clear stream bubbles and swirls as if some underground heater has been turned on. This is an illusion caused by the water being forced up through the stream bed; the water is actually cold. The film (below) captures this curious effect better than the photo.
We washed our muddy wellies by paddling in the boiling sands and then set out on a short walk through the reserve, to make them even muddier. It is a beautiful area with lots of interesting things to see, but even the established paths were mostly under water. We spotted a venerable old apple tree that had covered the ground at its feet with hundreds of small apples. We also noticed a Nuthatch singing a buzzing song high up in the crown of a tree.
There are various different areas where the water wells up from below and many of the trees stand in quiet pools creating a unique environment. The different spring waters all gradually come together and there is an ancient mill (Chase Mill). The river then runs down a valley to the lovely little town of Botley, where there is another historic mill. Thereafter the river is tidal as the estuary leads down to the Solent via Manor Farm Country Park, Bursledon, Wasash and Hamble.
A few years ago, my brother in law and I paddled a kayak up the Hamble estuary from Bursledon to Curbridge. There we had a tasty Sunday roast in the Horse and Jockey, before heading back down the river again. We saw Kingfishers, Herons, Oyster-catchers, Turnstones and many other birds on our journey.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Solent Storm Warning

We popped down to Leap Beach, in the New Forest to check out the weather in the Solent. The wind was savage and it was difficult to walk into it due to flying sand stinging our faces. The vista was slate grey, the foam streaked sea was whipped into an angry rage. We ate our picnic lunch from the safety of the car, before venturing out into the howling wind.

Every now and then the low, thin sun came slanting out from beneath the clouds. This contrast gave us some respite from the persistent weather and the lovely shearing light created long shadows off the beach groins and scuttling sea-birds.
Despite the havoc wreaked by the relentless storms that have lashed the South of the UK, the jewel-like crocuses continue to spring from the sodden turf; brightening my cycle ride to and from work. I have even spotted plum blossom buds, preparing to burst open.
Speaking of work, my lunch box is still packed with healthy nuts and apples that we picked last Summer/Autumn. The apples have been tucked away in our shed for the last 5 months and they are still crisp and tasty.
Apple from the Common
Walnuts and Hazelnuts will keep for ages; I keep ours in wicker baskets in the house and they are lasting very well this year. I spend 20 minutes cracking the shells off and then chuck a few raisins into the mix.

We still have some Poached Pears, preserved in syrup. I bottled these last year and they make a delicious evening treat for a stormy night. I love them heated up and served with a dollop of vanilla ice cream…

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Signs of Spring and a Seed Swap

The land is currently so saturated that any rain seems to simply sit on the surface, in dank, dark puddles. However, despite the depressing weather, it’s always nice to discover something new, even if it’s only fresh news to you.
For instance, from a young age, I knew that catkins were the flowers of the Hazel tree. Children love collecting and playing with these soft furry danglers and we often compete to see who can find the longest. What I didn’t know, was that the catkin is the male flower and that the Hazel, also has a female flower!
I discovered this fact for myself, when photographing catkins recently; I spotted some tiny pinkish flowers, clinging to the same branch. They looked like miniature, red sea urchins.
Having seen them, I was surprised that I had never noticed this detail before and further investigation proved that these little marvels were indeed the female partner to the male catkins.
I have also spotted other signs of Spring, crocuses, starting to show their colourful faces; in a spirited attempt to dispel the gloomy, grey, wet weather. Snowdrops are also flowering in the fields and hedgerows.
Snowdrops are out now too...
While we are thinking wistfully about Spring, there is a Seed Swap on Sunday the 9th February in Southampton, opposite the Art House CafĂ©. 
It starts at 11.00 am till 3.30 pm; we will be there later on. 
I will also give a quick talk on our adventures with the Urbane Forager project at the Art House afterwards; so, you can have a cup of tea and a tasty cake too...

Do come along and say hi, if you can.