Friday, 1 May 2015


Imagine you are walking through the country on a route you've never taken before and you see a wooden signpost pointing to 'The Valley of Stones'. Well you have to follow the path don't you?

Close up of gorse in flower.
Exactly. So over I went and through the kissing gate and along by mountains of gorse. Plants and trees seem a bit all over the place this year. Last weekend I watched the London Marathon on television. I have no idea why I find this interesting. It's a whole load of people I don't know hurrying along through emptied city streets for hours on end - thousands of them! It's a bit like horse racing. I sometimes watch that on the television too. Perhaps it's the predictability of it. Everyone starts at A and tries to get to B as fast as they can. Then un-threatenting people who didn't do the hurrying talk to those who did - and that's it. When the news is otherwise full of bombs and earthquakes, things which burst terrifyingly out of the blue, perhaps I like to be reassured by events with no surprises. But the thing which stood out specially with the Marathon this year was how green were the trees in London compared with the trees in Dorset. A week later and everything here is lushing up. Some places are almost unrecognisable because the rain-inspired green-ness is so sudden - and tall.

Pond with weed. Gorse around it and sky reflected in it. Uprooted small tree.
Hang on - I think I've got lost. Why am I talking about horse racing and marathons and the trees in London? - oh yes - it's about gorse. Our trees may seem a tad slow in comparison this year and the blackthorn blossom may not be as impressive as usual - but the gorse? Oh the gorse! Roads are lined with it in brilliant yellow. It's all over the place and on the hills there's so much in flower it looks as if great billows of golden clouds have come to land in the grass. And there it was on my way to The Valley of Stones.

And a pond too; murky and mysterious. Brilliant! Sometimes it's like living in a children's story book.

Two trees beyond grass. One in leaf. One not.
Think England and you think thatched cottages. Maybe you think of crumpets and UKIP too. Maybe football in cities and cricket on village greens. Red buses? Late trains? We don't have red buses round here but I've seen quite a few UKIP signs in the last few weeks. They come - and will hopefully go. But thatched cottages are abundantly present - and comfortingly old. Why am I going on about cottages now? Um . . . oh yes. The cottages are tucked in valleys and folds between great big green hills. I mean really big. They aren't mountains. They don't go sheer up and sheer down. They go in great waves through the land. There are villages (and thatched, stone cottages) hidden in some of their folds but in other places there are no dwellings - just gorse and trees and cattle or sheep . . .

In the picture, we are part way down the hill. We will walk a bit to our right, then down, then left again behind the tree and continue further down still. It's not hard walking - just a bit steep in places.

Until we reach this place - The Valley of Stones.

Boulders at the foot of the valley reaching into the distance. Each one separate from the others.
Scale is hard to convey in photographs. I don't want to exaggerate how high are the hills on either side of this valley - but they are higher than they appear in the photo; so the presence of boulders at the bottom when the slopes on either side of them are smooth comes as a surprise. They snake along like a wide path. It's better seen when you are standing there among them or looking down from a distance. (Distance is hard to get right on blogs.) And don't be put off by the telegraph poles either. It's because we are out in the country that wires have to be supported above the ground instead of expensively under it. This place is is not remote in the way some of the wilds in Scotland are remote - but there are no houses nearby (only ruins); and when I was there, no walkers apart from the friend who came with me. The silence is tremendous.

Nor would I like to suggest I'm terribly genned up on science and geology so I'll simply copy the Natural England notice at the top of the path.

Wild violets beside one of the boulders.
'This National Nature Reserve is named after the distinctive boulders that tumble down this dry valley in the downs. These sarsen stones, of tightly cemented gravels and sands, derive from the former capping above the chalk that became fragmented during the freeze/thaw conditions after the last ice age 10,000 years ago.

'This Reserve is also notable for its fine chalk grassland and the associated insects and flowers. Scarce lichens and mosses grow on the sarsens, The downland and heathy grassland is maintained by cattle and sheep grazing.

'This is part of a working farm, managed in partnership with the landowner, the Bridehead Estate, and a tenant. Stock are present all year so please keep dogs on a lead.'

One of the boulders made up of smaller stones close up.
Some of the rocks are smooth, but others, as mentioned on the notice, are made up of smaller stones stuck together and some of the flints are so polished by the weather (or so compressed?) they have glass-like qualities . . . (anyone know what causes this?) . . . and their broken faces shine as if they have been consciously cut for the sake of reflecting light just as windows and car mirrors do - or binoculars in the distance . And in this I am not exaggerating. They are pretty and special.

Three Yellow Dung Flies on a cow pat.
The notice mentions wild flowers. Most noticeable when I visited were violets clustered around one of the rocks but there were the beginnings of bluebells here and there too - for all that it wasn't woodland. You know what violets look like. You know what bluebells look like. And I posted about Oil Beetles last year . . . So in the spirit of bringing you pictures you might not often find on other blogs - I spent a little while moving from cow-pat to cow-pat taking photogaphs of these beautiful Yellow Dung Flies (Scathophaga stercoraria) who were mating en masse in the sunshine. They may be called 'Yellow' but if I have named them I would have said they are gold. I'm a fan.

Me new and multi-coloured shoe.

Thinking of bright colours - what do you think of my new shoes? They may not look much good for walking in but they are so supple they give an excellent grip on rough (dry) ground and are extraordinarily comfortable. (I haven't tried them in the wet yet.)

And remember - It's only a week before our next Tree Following Festival. THURSDAY 7TH MAY!

Sunday, 26 April 2015

SECRET GARDENS OF THE COTSWOLDS by Victoria Summerley with photographs by Hugo Ruttison-Thomas

Loose and Leafy photo of cover of Secret Gardens of the Cotswolds

Don't bother to read this review - just go and buy the book. Make haste. Do not delay. Just buy it. 

Unlike many of my readers (I suspect) I don’t like visiting gardens. Not usually. I like poking around in ditches and hedges. I value surprises above choice; nature when left to its own devices rather than careful planning. So what on earth am I doing liking this book? Even the wild-plant meadows in it have been put there on purpose by enthusiastic gardeners and enthusiastic owners.

Loose and Leafy photo of p.79 of Secret Gardens of the Cotswolds - with Stephanie Richards
Stephanie Richards of Eastleach House, Eastleach. (p.79)
Well, for a start, one’s own life experiences influence how we react to anything and two are relevant here. The first is that I opened the book in the expectation of a good read because the text is written by Victoria Summerley whose blog about her London garden I followed from its very first entry. When she moved to Gloucestershire I drifted off a bit; in part this was because her focus shifted as she took up her new life in a rural setting; and partly because the frequency of her posts grew erratic. There were long gaps. Perhaps because she was writing this book. And quite right too for blogs are ephemeral. This book isn’t. There’s such a strong sense of history one feels this is but a stage – the story so far – and that readers in the future will be bound to want to read it as a way of understanding their present – just as it leads us to ours. For the people who live in these houses are there as real people; they have interesting ancestors (both genetic and in the sense of previous owners) who fought in wars and got ill, who ran out of money, who died.

The other reason I was more open to this book than usual is that I recently visited the National Trust gardens at Kingston Lacy in Dorset. I didn’t expect much to like it. It was there so I went.

Loose and Leafy photo of text about Snowdrop Thieves. p.48 of Secret Gardens of the Cotswolds
p.48 Chapter on Colesbourne Park, Colesbourne
Visiting National Trust properties doesn’t rate high on my list of enjoyable ways to spend a day. It reminds me too much of being dragged round them as a child - when the idea of ‘Educating the Family’ oozed from every parental pore so strongly it was never clear whether my parents really liked stately homes any more than we children. And once I had grown up? Well, I associate it with late-middle-aged couples wandering round in lace-up shoes and peaceful awe; something they do together after lives of separate work-places; a diversion for the semi-geriatric who haven’t anything better to do.

Loose and Leafy photo of p. 71 in Secret Gardens of the Cotswolds. Orangery and Daylesford House
Not Kingston Lacy but p.71 in the book: The Orangery at Daylesford Houses, Kingham.
But Kingston Lacy won me over. The first thing I saw was the largest lawn I’ve ever seen. And I don’t like lawns. But this lawn . . . one’s immediate impulse was to run across it. And that’s what we did (two adults and two teenagers). And because we dived straight into an open treasure chest of games (we chose quoits and played beside an old tree with branches swooping swingingly close to the ground) we felt properly at home before we explored further. So I was in the right mind to appreciate this garden as a garden rather than an adjunct to a historical visitor attraction; and found that admiring those who choose plants and trees and decide where to put them needn't be a distraction from enjoyment but a proper part of it.

Loose and Leafy photo of p. 63 of Secret Gardens of the Cotswolds - lemurs and bamboo
p.63: in the chapter about
The Cotswold Wildlife Park, Burford

Now, the gardens in Victoria’s book (apart from one with a zoo) are not the kind you can pay to see on a regular basis – if ever. They are privately owned and privately cared for. That’s what’s secret about them. Nor are they of the Frances Hodgeson-Burnett kind - wild and neglected places behind walls with locked gates. They are gardens lovingly tended by the people who live there and their gardeners. For these are ‘posh’ gardens. Gardens owned by wealthy people who can afford ‘staff’. People from another world than mine.  - If I were rich and had a big garden maybe I wouldn’t be as struck as I am by ditches and hedgerows!

There are outbursts of topiary (disgustingly ugly in my eyes). And there are knot gardens of box (elegant and entrancing from my inconsistent view).
Loose and Leafy photo of sculpture by and of Antony Gormley from p.41 in Secret Gardens of the Cotswolds
Antony Gormley sculpture - p.41
Burford Priory, Burford
There are sculptures and ornamental buildings.
But for the most part - sometimes despite the artifice and sometimes because of it - these gardens have an air of spontaneity. Not that this feeling of nature itself being the artist really comes from nature; it comes from effort and wealth and a sense of time. And you need to know time to create gardens like these. (And money!) You sort of have to know where you’ve come from and what a tree looks like when it is old to make them this way. I don’t know what I should do with my left-wing principles here so I’ll put them temporarily aside. But the people, the history behind these gardens, is why the text is important. This isn’t a picture book with text thrown in. The text is engaging. It’s well written. It’s interesting. It’s the basis of the book.

Loose and Leafy photo of photo of Pergola at Eastleach House in Secret Gardens of the Cotswolds
Pergola path. p.83
Eastleach House, Eastleach
None the less – the photographs. The photographs! The photographs from Hugo Rittson-Thomas! I have books with very muzzy pictures. I bought one specially so I could identify seaweeds and can hardly make out anything so it’s pretty much useless. But these are fabulous. Each one is a proper picture, not an illustration. Just as the gardens have been skilfully designed to look informal, the photographs are works of art that perfectly complement the text rather than distract from it; they are neither rubbish nor pretentious. Whether they are of glades, arbours, frost on grass, mist in valleys or vegetables and fruit trees - they catch and hold the eye.

Oh, just go and buy it.

It’s published by Frances Lincoln,  costs £20 and its ISBN number is 978 7112 3527 4. No excuse!

P.S. The publishers sent me this book absolutely ages ago (January).
Apologies for the delay.
But better a late review than never.