Sunday, 24 March 2019

On The Towpath

When you plan to take a peaceful walk in the countryside, the railway station in Harlow New Town is far from the most obvious place to start, but that's where I found myself on Saturday morning.

It is handily placed to access the River Stort though, which can then be followed back upstream to Bishop's Stortford. There's a riverside path all the way. Except that it's not, strictly speaking, a river any more.

The towns of Ware, Hertford and Bishop's Stortford were competitors in the trade of supplying agricultural produce to the ever-growing population of London. The most profitable of these products, back in the eighteenth century, was barley malt for the brewing industry. Ware and Hertford had rather stolen a march on Stortford by making the River Lea navigable so their produce could be moved by barge, rather than having to rely on the poor roads of the time.

So in 1759 an Act was passed in Parliament allowing similar works to be carried out on the River Stort. So it should be called the "River Stort Navigation" rather than just the River Stort. The path we're following today - along with early morning dog-walkers and keen joggers - is the path that was once used by the horses that hauled the barges up and down the waterway, until the advent of steam-powered boats.

Today all the traffic on the river is for leisure, though a lot of people live permanently on boats too.

But making the river navigable involved a lot more than simply digging it a little deeper here and there. The upper section of the river was not wide enough nor deep enough so, in order to hold the water back, lock gates were built at about two-mile intervals. In places the river needed straightening to allow barges through. Elsewhere there were water mills that had to be by-passed while still allowing the mill to have enough water to power its grindstones.

This all makes for an interesting walk as there is constant alternation between man-made sections and more natural stretches of water. Sometimes its a hive of activity as boats make their way through the locks, while elsewhere all is tranquil with just the song of the Chiffchaff and the hammering of Woodpeckers for company.

Many of the boats are painted traditionally - but this is not one of them!

I'm off to get a spot of lunch and to have a look at the little town of Sawbridgeworth now. I'll see you soon.....

….and a little farther along we'll be greeted by this rather cute "sea dog", clearly desperate to go for a walk.

More livestock! Not the sort of beastie you'd be expecting to encounter around here.

They also had to construct wide turning-basins where boats could be turned around if necessary.

There were plans at one time to continue with the project as far as Cambridge and thence to Kings Lynn. The most obvious route passed close to Audley End House, home of Lord Howard de Walden, who opposed the scheme. By the time alternative routes had been surveyed the scheme had lost impetus and was never built.

Time to get arty with some distorted reflections of reeds.

This boat owner must also have some artistic leanings to be mooring his bright red boat directly beneath these Forsythia bushes.

And so we come at length to the town of Bishop's Stortford, from where I can catch a train homewards.

Walker's Log:

     Start: Harlow Town station, Essex 10:30
     End: Bishop's Stortford, Hertfordshire 15:20
     Distance walked: 10.8 miles (17.3 Km)
     Total ascent: negligible - though I was going upstream! 
            Notable birds: Chiffchaff, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Buzzard.
     Churches: Sawbridgeworth (open).
     People with dogs: 5
     People just enjoying a walk: 3
     Joggers: 4 
     Cyclists: 1
     Horse riders: 0

Take care.

Friday, 22 March 2019

March Flower, March Tree

Daffodil - Narcissus pseudonarcissus

The Daffodil could easily be Britain's favourite flower. It may be the national symbol of Wales but they are everywhere at this time of year. You'll find them in parks, in churchyards, alongside country roads, outside pubs and shops, and in almost every garden. And still the supermarkets sell bunches of them at the checkout. 

Unsurprisingly they also have a fine selection in the Botanic Garden, even if they don't seem to make too much fuss about it. 

Daffodils thrive in this part of the world, which is what you'd expect as the wild variety grow naturally in western Europe. Nowadays there are dozens of forms of the humble "daff" available from garden centres, mostly yellow or white but also with some pink or greenish colouration. 

Everyone knows that William Wordsworth wrote that poem about "a crowd, a host, of golden daffodils". But his inspiration, as so often, was his sister Dorothy. Here's what she wrote in her journal:

"When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow park we saw a few daffodils close to the water side, we fancied that the lake had floated the seeds ashore & that the little colony had so sprung up — But as we went along there were more & yet more & at last under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road. I never saw daffodils so beautiful they grew among the mossy stones about & about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness & the rest tossed & reeled & danced & seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the Lake, they looked so gay ever glancing ever changing. This wind blew directly over the lake to them. There was here & there a little knot & a few stragglers a few yards higher up but they were so few as not to disturb the simplicity & unity & life of that one busy highway… — Rain came on, we were wet".

Yoshino Cherry - Prunus yedoensis

Compared to the quiet, unassuming Daffodil, this month's tree is rather the poster girl of the Garden - at least, its photo is on the notice board as you enter. The Flowering Cherry or Yoshino Cherry is actually a hybrid which occurs in Japan, though its exact parentage has long been a matter of dispute. We'll leave the botanists to worry their heads about that and we'll just enjoy its beauty.

In Japan they have made a speciality of breeding dozens of different cultivars of the flowering cherry tree - enough to make everything I can find out online extremely confusing! There is general agreement though that prunus yedoensis is the most popular worldwide, growing in many cities, and amazingly enough all ultimately being clones of the same ancestor tree.

At Cambridge there is a second cherry tree with pink blossom planted alongside.

There was a low, gentle hum as a soundtrack to my photography as the industrious honeybees went about their business. Most of them were not at all keen on being photographed and quickly slipped out of focus as soon as a lens was pointed in their direction.

The area around the tree had recently been dug over so there's not the usual overload of photos of the bark, even though all cherries have attractive trunks and branches.

But it really doesn't matter whether you're poking your head in among the floriferous branches or viewing the tree from further away, it's still an amazing sight.

Take care.

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

March's Garden

The recent spell of cold and windy weather has rather put a brake on our runaway Spring, so when I went to the Cambridge University Botanic Garden this week I wondered quite what I'd find to photograph. I've been showing you a little bit of the site each month, but the best looking parts of the Garden this month were the Winter Garden and the Glasshouses, which we've already explored.

But there was a small, but persistent, presence tugging at my sleeve. "Go the smelly one," it urged, "Go the smelly one!". Long ago, you see, I used to bring a young boy here as part of my work. He was both blind and autistic, but could invariably find his way to the Scented Garden, guided either by the fragrance, or else by some uncanny sixth sense, which was the only explanation we could offer for many of the things which he could do.

Even my old and tiring senses could detect the fragrance of the "City Of Haarlem" hyacinth in the top photo and the Erysimum "Walberton's Fragrant Sunshine" (above) as I entered the Scented Garden. There weren't huge numbers of flowers blooming and the theme seemed to be very definitely yellow. On this warm, cloudy day there were lots of intermingling aromas, but they are not easy things to photograph. We'll have to make do with scattered flowers and a few memories.

Several gardeners were hard at work giving many of the shrubs and herbs some neat but rather brutal haircuts in readiness for summer. I don't usually photograph this cheerful band of workers as they go about their very necessary tasks, so I take this opportunity to thank them for their endeavours.

I thought I'd better grab this shot before the shears and secateurs descended and robbed us of these sculptural forms till next winter.

Maybe this little darling had been disturbed from its reverie by all the busy activity going on around it.

The garden lies in a slight hollow that helps to trap the fragrant air and there are raised beds which lift the blooms nearer to nostril height. It's a wonderful place for those with visual impairments to enjoy the wonder of the garden. My young friend was very happy to remain here as long as possible.

The most glorious perfume to rise in any garden and find its way to my nostrils is that of Rosemary. I can't walk past without rubbing my fingers along its stems and through those rudimentary leaves. The flowers are not particularly showy; it's as though the plant has put all its effort into its scent, like some drab little birds contrive to produce the loudest, most flamboyant song.

My father used to like this place too. In the days before there was an admission charge to the Botanic Garden many people used to cut through here as a pleasant respite from the traffic-clogged streets. Dad used to use this as part of his route home from town and knew where all the best seats were for a few minutes rest before continuing his journey. On wet or drizzly days the little shelter in the Scented Garden was the place to be.

And then there were the days when I visited as one of the more pleasant parts of my work. You may be wondering just how I could persuade a very single-minded young man, intoxicated by the mix of aromas on offer, that it was time to leave this heavenly space. That's easy: suggest a cup of tea and a slice of cake in the café. Well, that's where I'm going now. Are you coming or what?

Take care.

Saturday, 16 March 2019

A Church Like Ones Great-Aunt

Yesterday I took the opportunity to pay a visit to a village church that's just a few miles down the road from me, but one which I've never introduced you to before. Whittlesford church is not especially grand but has bags of personality.

And that personality is that of a much loved great-aunt, showing many signs of age but still vigorous and charming. She carries the remains of ancient finery, though now rather faded and tattered. And the longer you spend in her company the more of her long and interesting life is revealed. Lets go and meet her.

She welcomes you with a lop-sided smile in the form of a seemingly tumbledown porch, but one which has served her well since the fourteenth century.

There have clearly been some hard times along the way! You could spend a lot of time becoming acquainted with this doddering delight, but we want to go inside. At the last minute, just as we're about to lift the latch, the old girl has a sudden change of mind and instructs us, via a small printed sign, to go around the back instead. OK, Auntie.

We do as instructed and enter through a modern annex, built in the last few years and showing that the old girl is keeping up with the times, and then through another door in a wall that must be at least nine-hundred years older. There are bits and pieces scattered about, collected since at least the Norman period and some things that may date from even earlier times, relics from a possible Saxon church on this site, or even pagan survivals.

In this niche there's a strong suggestion of bright colours, fashionable during the time when this dear old church had matured into perhaps her finest incarnation, in medieval times. The wealthy had contributed to a stylish building, grander perhaps than was necessary for the humble farmers hereabouts. These were the glory days of colourful frescos, and traces are still visible, though we can now only guess at the former grace and refinement.

Layer upon layer of grandeur has been added over the centuries.....

….though here and there the cracks are starting to appear. I can't help but admire the shabby dignity that has survived the centuries.

The passing years haven't always been kind, but they've certainly added character and charm, like a lifetime of smiles and frowns lends lively interest to the human face.

This rough, honest flooring does nothing to hide the fact that changes have been wrought here, though keeps the precise details to itself.

A craftsman laboured to construct a door that might last forever, and it's still sound centuries later, despite the rough handling it's received.

Whatever these small recesses once sheltered has been lost forever.

Centuries after the event, old tales are still remembered, tales of the young men who went off to fight in battle - the Battle of Crecy in 1346.

Graffiti, some of which are very old indeed, scar the columns that divide the nave and the south aisle. The top right shows another brave archer remembered less formally.

Generations of village folk must have gathered, some more willingly than others, every Sunday of every year, to mark the passing seasons or the passage through life itself. They sang, lustily or timidly; mumbled or chanted prayers and psalms; gathered for weddings; celebrated Christenings or wept at funerals: lit the candles and decorated the church for Christmas or Harvest Festivals. 

This old building works its charms on me far more successfully than any parson or preacher that I've ever encountered. I could linger here in this hushed silence all afternoon, listening as the very stones try to tell me their long history. For since I've been here, lost in my own thoughts, absorbing this cherished great-aunt's wisdom, not another soul has entered. 

Outside, in the windy churchyard, you can spend more time trying to untangle the clues of this enigmatic old building. Why would someone block half a window? Why would they build a door within a door, then block both? What kind of side-chapel might that old roof-line indicate?

If you know, you're not telling are you? 

Then finally, high up on the tower, just beneath the clock, you spot something totally unexpected. It's as if you suddenly found out that your venerable great aunt had a risqué tattoo on her withered buttocks.....

Yes, it's a Sheelagh na Gig. On the left is a representation of a woman sitting crouched with legs apart, displaying herself most immodestly to every passer-by. She is approached by a man, rather long in body, displaying an impressive erection. These carvings are found on several churches and are generally thought to be very ancient and quite possibly pagan, having been originally part of older buildings. Not what you'd expect to find on a church - especially one you've been likening to a great aunt.

Take care.