Sunday 29 September 2019

Farmers' Day Out

They're a curious breed: farmers. Allow them a day off after the long toil of harvest and what do they do? More farming, in the shape of Gransden And District Agricultural Show. More precisely it's a chance to talk about farming, meet other farmers and, perhaps most importantly, compare how you're all doing.

The Gransden Show is still a real agricultural show and not, as a friend I met there said, "turning into another funfair". Neither is it an outdoor showroom for tractors and combines, which has become the focus of some shows in this area. All these elements are here but you'll also find lot of farm animals, garden produce and countryside crafts competing for those coveted rosettes.

The show dates back to 1891 and has been held annually, with the exception of the war years. The nineteenth century was a time of rapid innovation in farming and many agricultural societies grew up to share information. Gransden had a society for buying and sharing agricultural books as long ago as 1816. It was natural that friendly competition between farmers led eventually to setting up shows like this.

Having worked for some years on a farm I can tell you that that's a fine Large White Sow being paraded in the ring. It takes a lot of practice to be able to make a pig go where you want it to!

Miniature goats weigh up the competition in their class.

Horses of all sizes were in attendance from little ponies up to the mighty working horses.

Donkeys too. I think you can see just who is in charge of the set-up above!

There was quite a large marquee dedicated to Fancy Pigeons. These birds have been bred into all kinds of strange forms, some of which look grotesque to me, birds which can neither fly nor even walk without difficulty. I refuse to even photograph them. Others though are undoubtedly beautiful creatures.

A collection of vintage tractors stood over to one side of the showground. But there were also more modern pieces of machinery.....

… this huge Case Quadtrak. They are really huge as you can see from the man in the foreground. And with a frightening price tag too no doubt!

And I'd better not forget about the flower and produce section which had some amazing floral arrangements.

Tucked in a corner of one of the marquees were some "flopsy bunnies" and accompanying them was some sort of wallaby. I spent a while trying to get them in the same photo and eventally they edged closer together. And closer together. Then just as I pressed the shutter button....

….sometimes you just get lucky!

Take care.

Friday 27 September 2019

Sunday 22 September 2019

September Tree, September Flower

There's no telling which tree and flower will grab my attention when I stroll around the Botanic Garden, but here's a tree that I simply hadn't noticed before...

Honey Locust - Gleditsia Triacanthos

It was one of the few trees in the garden that was beginning to show just a touch of autumn colour and it also looked so light and delicate against the blue sky. All its label told me was that it is native to the south-east United States. So I took a few photos.

Although the tracery of branches may look intricate and dainty, that's rather misleading - dainty it ain't! This is a tough and resilient tree capable of surviving in a wide range of environments and in some places being regarded as a horribly invasive species. Here in the UK it's just an attractive small tree requiring very little specialist care.

Most Honey Locust trees have branches equipped with sharp spines which can be long enough and sharp enough to puncture car tyres. I didn't notice any and can't spot them on my photos so I'm guessing that this tree is a cultivar which has been selected for its lack of thorns. 

The areas of bark which I did study had no sign of thorns but had some interesting shades and textures.

All in all it's a bit of an enigma: it looks delicate but is in fact hard as nails - quite literally as its thorns were actually used as nails in the past. In many places it's a popular tree which has fast growth and can be grown in all sorts of climates and on all kinds of soil. However this toughness can also make it an aggressive invader of agricultural land. I suppose you can't please all the people all the time.

But I know I can please at least one reader with my choice of flower this month.

Autumn Crocus - Colchicum Autumnale

The first thing to mention is that this "autumn crocus" is not a crocus at all but a member of the Lily family, whereas the true crocuses belong to the Iris family. Just to confuse things a bit more the common name of the Autumn Crocus is "Meadow Saffron", but it's not the plant that saffron is obtained from; that's Crocus sativus, a member of the crocus family which also flowers in the autumn!

There are in fact several closely related Colchicums, and many hybrids and cultivars, all of which are usually called Autumn Crocus by most gardeners. There are several similar plants growing in various parts of the Botanic Gardens - the Autumn Garden, the Limestone Rock Garden and the Alpine House.

They have a very individual life-cycle in that they burst forth from the soil at a time when everything else in the garden is thinking of shutting down for the winter. Its leaves have appeared in early Spring but they die back and then nothing happens all through summer till it flowers at the last possible moment, bringing a little cheer to the shortening days of September.

All parts of the plant are poisonous, especially to cats, though presumably most pussycats are too intelligent and discerning to try them. A drug is extracted from the plant though, which can be used for the treatment of gout.

The flowers are short-lived and often fall over on to the ground. But even that they do attractively and gracefully.

Take care

Friday 20 September 2019

September's Garden

The Stream

In the north-west corner of the University Botanic Garden in Cambridge there is a short, slow-flowing stream. It's fed by Hobson's Conduit, an artificial water-course built in the seventeenth century to bring fresh water into the town, and supplies water to the bog-garden and lake.

Along it's length the gardeners take advantage of the wet environment to grow many water-guzzling plants which would otherwise not survive in this area of low rainfall. Area of low rainfall? In England? Yes, indeed. Despite all the clich├ęs, this part of England receives only 563mm (22 inches) of rain each year. That's about the same as San Francisco, and less than Miami, Perth (Aus), Cape Town or Lisbon.

One of the most striking things about the stream garden, to a regular visitor like me, is the change that takes place through the seasons. In winter there's a lot of bare earth showing, then come the spring the gardeners are here planting it up for the summer and within a few short months the stream is all but hidden by the luxuriant vegetation, all built from the nutrients in the soil, water and sunshine.

Plants which thrive here include giant rhubarb, gunnera manicata, the skunk cabbage, lysichiton americanum, plume thistle (cirsium rivulare ‘Atropurpureum’), Culver's root (veronicastrum virginicum) and bleeding heart (dicentra spectabilis) - it says on the website.

Dragonflies often make a home here too, but it's really just a place to wander slowly absorbing the whole wild rampant show of growth.

Take care.

Wednesday 18 September 2019

Beneath The Roaring Traffic

You could drive along the A1(M) road hundreds of times (as some poor souls do) and never guess what lay under the highway. You could even drive around the busy roundabout on the A1000 Welwyn By-Pass which runs parallel to the A1(M) without noticing the entrance.

But if you did stop you might find this strange burrow beneath the roaring traffic which leads, should you follow it like Alice after the White Rabbit, to an unexpected world,

This downsloping tunnel is not part of the local sewer system as you might reasonably expect but is in the care of Hertfordshire Museums.

For here between 1960 and 1973 a local archaeologist called Tony Rook excavated part of a complex of Roman buildings. No sooner had he completed the work than plans were published for a new major road - going right over top of the site.

It was decided to build a "vault" over the remains and open it up as an educational facility and visitor attraction. This is the Roman baths which were part of a villa complex known to archaeologists as Dicket Mead. The photo above shows the poor old servant stoking the fires to heat the boiler.....

….meanwhile the privileged few lounge around in luxury. It has been suggested that as these buildings are close to a major Roman road it may have been the equivalent of a hotel. Or it may just be part of the villa of a wealthy family. It was built in the third century AD and was occupied for around 150 years.

There is also a display of various artefacts discovered during the excavation.

And here's a model of the buildings which give a little more idea of the layout. Nearest to us is the boiler room, but the bather entered via the far end where there's a cool room (frigidarium) which also acted as a changing room. They then proceeded to the warm room (tepidarium) where they may have had a massage, before entering the steamy hot room (caldarium). To the side of the hot room there's a hot bath. They then went out via the warm room and finished off with a cold plunge bath next to the cool room.

Looking back you can see the unfortunate servant, still stoking the boiler and unaware of the twenty-first century traffic rushing by overhead.

Take care