Sunday 30 May 2021

A Very English Village

Every real landscape has an imaginary equivalent that exists only in our minds, a perfect example that is seldom encountered outside of dreams. But every so often the material and the intangible meet up and sing together in unison. When an absent-minded cyclist wobbles unexpectedly into such a scene all he can do is dismount and lean his bike against a tree.

The place is Barrington, a village just a few miles from my home. The time is a fine, sunny Saturday afternoon at the end of May.

Many villages in this part of the world have "greens", as sung about by the Kinks, you know, "We are the Village Green Preservation Society". Historically they were places where the livestock could be kept safe overnight, later they became the venues for outdoor sports and dancing too. But nobody knows why the village of Barrington needed such a huge green; it's 1,100 yds (1 Km) long and nearly two hundred yards (or metres) across at its widest point. And, believe it or not, it used to be even bigger till some parts were built upon.

Around the perimeter of this large green space is a mixture of old houses and thatched cottages, many of which are picture-perfect - a vision of the idealised Olde England of fantasy.

Of course, you'll need a few pounds if you want to buy one of these properties. There's one on the market at the moment (not this one) that's open to offers over £675,000. It's rather more luxurious inside than the original inhabitants enjoyed, but you still have to walk through one bedroom to get to another.

During the summer months there's entertainment on the green in the form of cricket, yesterday it was the village's Second XI on show.

Cricket's a game that puts on display the character of the participants. Some players wield their bats like cavalier swordsmen with extrovert thrusts and flourishes. Others use theirs like a farmer holding a heavy board in front of a runaway pig to block its progress.

Just across the road you can buy an ice cream (or flowers, fruit, lottery tickets, groceries, bread, milk, firewood, postage stamps.....), then you can watch a bit more of the cricket.

An elderly gentleman tells me that the cricketers are not as good as they were in his day. I don't disbelieve him; it's one of those games where indifferent players can continue gain reputations of greatness years after they finish playing! A woman remarks that the sudden summer weather has taken us all by surprise. An astute ten-year-old sees my camera and asks if I take photos that make things look cool. Well, yes, I suppose I try.

I'd better take another wander around to see what I can do! Quite a bit of the green remains unmown this year - good for the wildlife.

Whenever I come here I always try not to photograph these chocolate-boxy cottages - and mostly I fail; it's just all too addictive.

I'm making my way up to the northern end of the green where the church and the village primary school stand.

For absolute perfection there ought to be a wedding taking place, or at least bell-ringing practice, but the grand old building seems to be deserted on this fine Saturday.

Down at the other end of the green the Royal Oak pub is having more success attracting customers! Village pubs are not doing too badly as we come out of lockdown as they have plenty of space for outdoor seating, and now we are having suitable weather for sitting outside, pint in hand, and watching the world go by.

Now I'd better go and find my bike and pedal off homewards.

Take care.

Thursday 27 May 2021

What's A Forest?

Around the year 1100 AD King Henry I took a liking to a piece of the Essex countryside and declared it a Royal Hunting Forest. That kind of Forest (with a big F) is simply an area of land set aside for hunting; it doesn't necessarily imply anything about there being trees there, though in this case at least part of the area was probably wooded. Fallow Deer were imported around this time to improve the hunting, but we don't know whether Henry himself ever hunted here, though he surely would have consumed the venison.

Over the next few centuries Hatfield Forest developed into a true medieval forest. Such a forest was about as far from our modern concept of forestry as is possible. Whereas modern forests are monocultures of regimented rows of conifers, the medieval equivalent was a fully developed species-rich ecosystem.

Oliver Rackham, who was the leading authority on the development of English woodlands, wrote a whole book about Hatfield Forest as the area fascinated him so much.

As you wander around here today you can easily imagine how it looked several hundred years ago. Unlike modern forests there were open areas used for grazing in amongst the trees. And that is still the case today.

These are Red Poll cattle, a breed much favoured by conservationists. They are small beasts that do not churn up the wet land too much; they also don't bother the many walkers who pass by.

So just what was the medieval forest used for? Modern forestry produces only timber and wood-pulp, with increasing emphasis on recreational uses such as walking and off-road biking. Medieval forests were rather more productive.

We've already heard about venison and beef production within the forest, and pigs were also kept in some forests. Large areas were "coppiced" - that is the trees were cut off near to ground level, whereupon the stump grew a large number of upright poles which could be harvested every few years. Elsewhere some trees were left to grow large enough to provide timber for building houses, barns and ships.

The local people would also have foraged in the forest for edible fungi, birds and their eggs, nuts, berries and firewood. They also collected leaves which were fed to animals. Ownership and rights within the forest were extremely complex, so while the king had exclusive rights to the hunting, he didn't own the timber and different groups of people may have had rights to the grazing or foraging.

All this needed management and you can still see the Forest Lodge where the head forester would have lived.

We now know, through the detailed work of scientists, that such a system of forest management was sustainable - good for wildlife, economically viable and suited the population of the time. Was the system arrived at by accident? After all none of those who developed the system were scientists.

I can only draw parallels with mothers who bring up their children satisfactorily despite not having a degree in child psychology - or gardeners who instinctively seem to understand what needs doing to grow prize-winning vegetables without being able to explain how their methods work - or even market traders who know exactly how to sell you their wares without studying advertising or marketing. 

It's all based on lifelong experience, knowledge passed down from previous generations and pure gut instinct; all of which are acquired by living closer to the land than we do today, though we can glimpse what we've lost as we wander around absorbing the beauty and realities of the countryside.

Maybe the Houblon family sought to reconnect with the natural world when they bought Hatfield Forest back in 1729. In those days though it was more fashionable to exhibit your power and influence by moulding nature to your needs, rather than working alongside the natural world. Consequently they had a large boating lake constructed. On the far shore, picked out by a shaft of sunlight, is the "Shell House", a small building decorated with seashells, which served the family when taking picnics by the water, and also a house which was occupied by the woman who looked after their peacocks and other poultry. Like many modern visitors the Houblons mainly confined their activities to the small area around the lake.

To the north of the present-day forest is a pleasant footpath which was, between 1869 and 1972, the course of the Bishops Stortford-Dunmow-Braintree railway. If I hadn't told you it could easily pass for a picture of the forest, couldn't it?

And we'll finish up with a picture of a horse. He's nothing to do with the forest at all, but is here because I have a cousin who reads this blog and who's very fond of horses. My brother and I think of her whenever we spot a horse on our walks.

Take care.

Friday 21 May 2021

A Morning In May


Sometimes it's better to travel than to arrive - and sometimes it's better not to travel at all, but to walk around on your home ground and watch the slow (and sometimes not so slow) changes as they take place right under your nose.

You can proceed as slowly as you like; as slow as the little snail making its steady way up the wet tree trunk after the overnight rain.

Or as slowly as the little chalk stream trickling gently beneath the dripping leaves. But some changes seem to occur more rapidly....

And every year this addled coconut, which I'm pleased to call my brain, is caught off-guard and unprepared for the abruptness of the transformation, though in truth I've always been better at dreaming than remembering and thinking things through.

Yes, we're talking about the sudden green that overtakes the woods and fields every Spring. It seems that 365 days is just the right amount of time for the human mind to forget things; so it's always a surprise when the nights draw out and the flowers start to bloom in the woodlands. 

The little snails take all this in their stride - if you can have such a thing as a stride with only one rudimentary foot - while I have to take photographs to convince myself that Spring is proceeding, even though the weather seems to be firmly stuck in March.

It's just as well that there's a clear path for me to follow!

The horse chestnut trees are bearing their cheery "candles" of blossom. I'd never realised quite how intricate and colourful the blooms were till I looked closely at this photograph.

Cow parsley and buttercups have also sprung into being on the meadows. But, I can tell you because I've seen the rest of these pictures, "you ain't seen nothing yet"!

If you know the village where I live, you'll realise that I'm following a devious, convoluted path around the parish today, not direct and purposeful like the upwardly-mobile snails.

This patch of green grass is only notable because I sat on a log here absorbing the scene and a brief sunny interlude. That often happens - if I stare at something for a while it slowly takes shape as a possible photograph. And hitherto unseen birds pop out from the bushes too, in this case a pair of Whitethroat seemed to be nesting nearby.

And on the way back I passed through another meadow - now that's what I call buttercups.

Take care.

Wednesday 12 May 2021

Wonderful Wetlands

The not-so-merry month of May has crept in under the cover of clouds, rain and colder than normal temperatures, but with just the odd nice day to remind us all what it should be like. Not that I've been cowering indoors though.....

I've fitted in three visits to wetland areas to try to find some of the birds that flit through here every spring, on their way to their breeding grounds. And I've been for an eye check-up and had my second Covid-19 jab too. Here's a selection of pictures from a visit to Ouse Fen RSPB bird reserve, earlier this week.

This may look like a beautiful natural area, although it's really nothing of the kind. In fact there is no natural countryside in the whole of England; it's all been affected in some way by the hand of humankind. For the last few decades huge diggers and lorries have been extracting a million tons of sand and gravel every year - and they're still doing it now. They've made a lot of big holes!

But, as they finish with each area, they are returning it to nature. If you just left nature to get on with it you'd soon have an impenetrable tangle of scrub. A lot of money is spent ensuring that there is a mosaic of different habitats; at present there is a huge reedbed being encouraged. There's also a network of footpaths so we can enjoy the reserve, though, because this is still in part a working quarry, not all parts are accessible to the public.

But there's still plenty of scope for a day's wandering - in fact there are still some parts I've never seen!

One thing about this flat countryside is that you can see the weather coming from afar, not that you can always find somewhere to shelter from it. We got lucky and just caught the very edge of a couple of squalls.

Bluntisham church looked wonderful as ever when seen across Berry Fen. Had we gone further we might have seen it reflected by the flooded fields nearer to Earith.

That sea of white specks on the island is not litter but hundreds of Black-Headed Gulls that nest there, amid much cacophony, every spring. There are other birds out there too - I presume they must be deaf.

Since gulls prey on other birds eggs and nestlings it must be a dangerous place to nest too.

And those are not bits of black plastic up in the branches - those are Cormorants on their nests. I'll leave you to work out why the branches beneath are all white.

And we'll finish off with a wider view of the first photo I showed you.

Take care.