Sunday 31 March 2019

The Greening

Every year at this time everything in nature is suddenly green. You step out one morning and notice that the grass needs cutting and you can no longer see through the hedge. Once it's happened you can't miss it, but catching it while it's at it is another matter. That's one of the reasons I go out for a walk every day.

And this particular walk started near Stevenage in Hertfordshire. Believe it or not this little pond is less than a hundred yards from the busy A1 road, but despite the lorries roaring past this is home to some rare newts and is a Site of Special Scientific Interest. 

Luckily we'll be following some quieter by-ways where the blackthorn is still blossoming and a few trees are trying to produce their leaves. 

New leaves, all innocent and green, put forth by that toughest of woodland characters, the hornbeam tree. Its wood is so hard that it's also known as "ironwood", and only used for specialist jobs like making wooden cartwheels or handles for tools. There's a lot of it  growing in the ancient woods of Hertfordshire. Those leaves won't stay as bright and fresh as that for long, but make a pretty sight for a while.

Once you get an eye for it you can sometimes pick out the remains of boundary banks and ditches within the wood. For our woods were once intensively managed to maximise their usefulness. You can even pick out the lines of old roads too - parallel ditches that are set rather wider apart than the footpath or track you're following.

There was once a road through the woods
Before they planted the trees.
It is underneath the coppice and heath,
And the thin anemones.
Only the keeper sees
That, where the ring-dove broods,
And the badgers roll at ease,
There was once a road through the woods.

                                                 from "The Way Through The Woods" by Rudyard Kipling

And here they are: the thin anemones of Kipling's poem, though these were growing on a roadside verge rather than in the wood itself.

You'll often hear people say that if you want to see the landscape properly then the best thing is to go for a walk. Utter rubbish of course - if you want to get everything into perspective you need to stop worrying about the map and sit down! Better still lay back and rest your head on the rucksack, shut your eyes and just listen. There's a skylark singing away, a distant pheasant crows and the soft breeze strokes your arms. 

We need to follow the road through Rustling End and we seem to have hit the rush hour.

As I crossed the fields from Langley I could see this farmhouse shining white amongst its green fields and just had to come and get a closer view.

Then we're back into deep countryside again, following a very minor stream beneath the trees. Suddenly there's a sweet, familiar sound that I've not heard for several months. I scan the bare branches but can see nothing there. Then, there it is, a Blackcap, which has the splendid Latin name of sylvia atricapilla (that's a small poem in itself). It's probably recently flown in from Spain or North Africa.

The rumble of traffic tells me that I'm getting near to the A1 road and the town of Stevenage once again. I'm looking up at the blackthorn blossom against the blue sky because looking down is truly painful here as it's inexcusably become a place for fly-tipping. Inexcusable because we're only a short distance from the council's official re-cycling depot.

Life doesn't have to be like this.

Walker's Log:

     Start: Stevenage rail station 10:30
     End: Stevenage rail station 14:20
     Distance walked: 8.1 miles (13 Km)
     Notable birds: Chiffchaff, Blackcap, Jay, lots of Buzzards.
     Mammals: rabbit, hare.
     Butterflies: Peacock, Brimstone, Comma.
     Churches: there's a small chapel at Langley which is now converted to a house.
     People with dogs: 0 (!)
     People just enjoying a walk: 2
     Runners: 1 
     Cyclists: 1
     Horse riders: 2

Take care.

Friday 29 March 2019

Beneath Lie Dust

So we come at last to Sawbridgeworth's parish church which is called Great St Mary's, though no one seems to be sure where the "Great" comes from, there being no other St Mary's churches nearby. At first sight it seems to be a largish but unremarkable building.

Inside however is an outstanding collection of memorials to the great (meaning "rich") men and women of the past. For this unassuming little town stands in some of the most fertile agricultural land in the country and much of it was given at various times to those who served the royal family.

There are at least three ways in which these memorials can be viewed:
          - you might see them, as I always used to, as symbols of the power of the local aristocracy who grabbed all the wealth of the area, to the detriment of the hard-working and less fortunate.
         - or you can concentrate on their historical value as they document everything from changing fashions of dress to the very different attitudes to death and the hereafter in past times.
          - and, thirdly, you can simply view them as works of art, some being the efforts of local craftsmen while others were commissioned from the great sculptors of the day.


Here we have the brasses to John and Joan Leventhorpe who departed this life as long ago as 1488 and 1448 respectively. The brasses would have once been affixed to a large stone slab on the floor of the building, underneath which the couple were interred. The brasses are now mounted on boards hung in the church. They are pictured in their burial shrouds and holding their hearts in their hands. Underneath is a rather gruesome epitaph in Latin which can be translated as:

Beneath lie dust, decay, entrails and gnawing worm
Death's lackey now he is, as life is his no more,
He nothing has, nor knows, nor are his virtues seen,
Look - meaner than the mire, the terror, horror, stench,
Disgrace of all the world, and common refuse he,
Here, brother, see thyself and breathe a prayer for me.

I hope you weren't eating breakfast as you read that!

Here, still in place on the floor of the church, are more Leventhorpes, John and Elizabeth (1435). He was a trusted servant of Henry IV and Henry V, a man of political cunning and influence who became one of the most powerful men in the country and managed to amass a sizeable personal fortune. She is dressed in the fashion of the day, while he is dressed in a suit of armour even though he was not a military man.

Yet another John Leventhorpe, this time Sir John Leventhorpe and his wife. He died in 1625 and by this time a huge alabaster memorial was thought more appropriate. Underneath them are depicted their mourning children, 6 boys and 8 girls.

By the 1640s, when Sir William and Lady Elizabeth Hewyt were commemorated, the style had become less formal. I love the gentle way in which he is supporting his wife's hand, while maintaining a firm grip on his sword. In all these memorials it's worth noting that it was important to record a reasonable likeness, perhaps a little enhanced, of the dead. While photographs are displayed on graves in some cultures today, representations of the dead never occur in Britain these days.

This rather fine bust is the work of John Bacon, the leading British sculptor of the day, and depicts Robert, 1st Viscount Jocelyn. It looks very realistic, though having been carved some time after the Jocelyn's death, must have been based on paintings. Although he served as Lord Chancellor of Ireland he was recorded by those who knew him as a man of simple tastes who was much amused that both his chaplain and his house steward were often mistaken for him as they had a much grander manner than he did.

The grandest of all though is this magnificent memorial to George, Viscount Hewitt of Gowram.

His statue is flanked by marble columns and, outside them, are great stashes of weaponry suggesting a man with a military career. In fact he was nothing of the sort being a famous dandy known as Beau Hewitt, who spent a lot of his time fighting, not great battles, but a series of rather tame duels over various women. 

It's tempting, when confronted by memorials that so misrepresent their subject, to accuse the person as being vain and hypocritical, though of course these works were usually commissioned by their descendants who wanted to present their ancestor rather differently to the way the rest of the world might have seen them. 

Here, on the other hand, is a memorial to a real military man, Joseph Vick, a corporal in the Light Dragoons, who was one of the six hundred who took part in the Charge of the Light Brigade. His simple plaque, paid for by his fellow citizens in Sawbridgeworth, stands in stark contrast to the ostentatious statues of others.

One day I'll take you to see the monument to a man who was a murderer, torturer and liar - but, never mind that, he has a very fine statue. 

Take care.

Wednesday 27 March 2019

A Dekko At Sawbo

I interrupted my Saturday stroll alongside the River Stort Navigation to visit Great St Mary's church in Sawbridgeworth. But first here are a few photos of the little town (population about 9,000)…..

For anyone who hasn't worked it out:
            Sawbo is the local pet name for Sawbridgeworth; it even turns up on the local council's website.
              and Dekko, in case you don't know, is British slang for "a look". It comes from a Hindi word picked up by soldiers serving in India.

Take care.

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.