Wednesday, 29 September 2010

A Short Dartmoor Walk at Two Bridges

This is a flashback to our recent holiday in the West Country. One of my reasons for starting a blog, almost a year ago, was to collect photographs from holidays or outings into some sort of order. Digital cameras are easy and useful, but in the backlog of images from a holiday, it is too easy to feel overwhelmed and leave them languishing on a memory card, never to be seen again. So, my project for "Rainy Days" is to get some of these sequences of photos sorted out.

A Dartmoor Afternoon

Mid afternoon, after a showery, late August morning. We drove northwards from Tavistock and the valley of the River Tavy, up onto the long climbing road to the edge of Dartmoor. Over a rumbling cattle grid and onto the moor, the first outcrops of grey granite appeared out of sheep-nibbled , grassy heathland.

Dry stone walls edged farm fields that bordered the moor.

We drove on for several miles, to a place on the map where two roads meet. Two Bridges is now just a country junction, with an old coaching inn beside the West Dart River in a sheltered , green valley. Once a meeting place for people who lived at each side of Dartmoor, Two Bridges held a Potato Market in earlier times.

Finding a footpath along an old farm track, we walked along a ridge, beside rough pasture that bordered the river as it ran its course from high moorland and down towards the valley.

Getting up from an afternoon sleep..... graze rough pasture among sedges and thistle stalks beside the river.

Rough hewn dry stone walls fenced in the sheep. Here, a stone had tumbled out of the jigsaw of the wall to leave a picture frame window into fields beyond.

Looking up the valley, onto moorland and a forestry plantation.

Beside the track, old walls stretched up the hillside. A Rowan tree was heavy with ripening berries.Heather and dwarf gorse buzzed with the hum of visiting bees.

The lane led us to a small Dartmoor farmhouse, and then the way went upwards across fields, towards the higher moor.

Looking backwards along the river valley, where glinting water rushed and tumbled over rocks.

Gateposts of granite monoliths between the dry stone walls. Most dry stone walls in the highlands of Britain have their origins in field boundaries many hundreds of years old. In farms that have belonged to generations of the same family, the walls are maintained by descendents of the men who built them first.

The farmhouse, where a small generator whirred electricity from an outhouse.

This would be the view southwards from the farmhouse, down along the river valley towards Two Bridges and the road.

Bright moss on the old stone wall of the farmhouse garden, and an ancient pathway that lead upwards and onto the heath.

The shadows were lengthening and rain threatened again. We decided to turn back here, but the valley beyond held a secret that may tempt us back another day. The deep green wood on the far hill slope is Wistman`s Wood. It is one of the last ancient oak woodlands on the moors, and can only be reached by a trek on foot. The oaks and granite boulders of Wistman`s Wood are festooned with the mosses and lichens that this damp, moorland environment encourages to grow. It is said to be a beautiful and magical place.

A brisk walk back as the sun was beginning to dip in the western sky. At Two Bridges, we crossed the road and walked down onto a greensward beside the widening, rushing river.

An old granite millstone in late, bright sunshine.

This is the remaining one of the Two Bridges that gave this place its name. Its narrow, moss and lichen covered structure no longer takes the main traffic from the road. Single vehicles and pedestrians cross the river here, on their way to the coaching inn.

The Two Bridges Hotel is a modernised incarnation of a coaching inn, once called the Saracen`s Head. Travellers could stop for shelter and refreshment on a long journey, by horse or by foot, across Dartmoor. Today, the Hotel looks a perfect place for a quiet stay in a stunningly beautiful location.

The modern road bridge, now the second of the Two Bridges, which takes traffic on the main road between Tavistock and Oakhampton.

Mallard ducks snooze beside the old bridge......

From the bridge, we watched the peat stained water tumble along the West Dart and down across the valley towards the south. The East and West Dart rivers meet further along, to join the sea at Darmouth on the southern coast of Devon.

Swirling froth and black water beneath the bridge.

Raising his tankard of ale to the company, is a fine frog in waistcoat and britches on the weathervane above the Two Bridges Hotel.

The drive homewards , along a different road, took us past Her Majesty`s Prison at Princetown, rising grey and forbidding out of the valley. Built from local granite, the prison is several centuries old and once held prisoners captured in the Napoleonic Wars. Now, it holds Category C prisoners, who have not been committed for violent crimes. The small surrounding town of Princetown appears to have grown up largely to service the prison in this bleak and lonely place.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Damp Hedgerows, and "The Lane" by Edward Thomas

The Lane

Some day, I think, there will be people enough
In Froxfield to pick all the blackberries
Out of the hedges of Green Lane, the straight
Broad lane where now September hides herself
In bracken and blackberry, harebell and dwarf gorse.
Today, where yesterday a hundred sheep
Were nibbling, halcyon bells shake to the sway
Of waters that no vessel ever sailed.....
It is a kind of spring: the chaffinch tries
His song. For heat it is like summer too.
This might be winter`s quiet. While the glint
Of hollies dark in the swollen hedges lasts-
One mile- and those bells ring, little I know
Or heed if time is still the same, until
The lane ends and once more is the same.

By Edward Thomas (1878 - 1917)

Froxfield is a village in Eastern Hampshire, in the lovely wooded hills ( hangars) of the South Downs near Petersfield. Edward Thomas lived nearby in the hamlet of Steep.

A wet, misty Tuesday morning in late September. The New Forest lanes, like those Hampshire lanes walked by the poet Edward Thomas, were rich with the dark greens of late summer foliage. Dew drenched webs of a thousand spiders spread a ghostly cloak over gorse bushes by the path.

Spiked, lime green "hedgehog" cases of sweet chestnuts have grown this week........

.......and some are dropping to the soaked ground, where they will split and give up their slender chestnuts to squirrels and to mice.

Beech mast droops on a bough of turning leaves.........

......while rose hips ripen, deep shining red in the bracken undergrowth..........

.....and there are blackberries enough for all the people in our village, but few leave their cars behind to gather them. Maybe it is for the best. The hedges and heaths are alive with feeding birds and the nuts and berries grow, Nature`s storecupboard, in ripe and plentiful profusion.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Garden Crab Apple Jelly

In late summer sunshine, the two old crab apple trees have been laden with ripe, red-yellow fruit. Fruit began to fall this week, helped by a windy night. From my window, I have watched magpies and a pair of crows hopping in the branches, shaking the boughs with their strong beaks and then flying down to take fallen fruit from the grass. Wasps are feeding on the ripe juices of the small bruised apples and there is a scent of early fermentation in the air.

This September, as I am no longer teaching, I am enjoying the luxury of time. Time to gather the small harvest of our garden and to cook and preserve what I can. The old dogs and a gingery cat sunbathed in the grass as I picked ripe crab apples and rescued the best fruit beneath the trees.

Sorting and slicing the fruit took time, but I listened to a radio play as I worked.
As the crab apples came to the boil in a heavy pan, the kitchen filled with their sharp, acidic scent as they softened to a golden pulp.

Time for the crab apple pulp to be caught in a large muslin cloth , which hung over a bowl to gather the reddish-pink juice that poured and then dripped from the fruit.

Some hours later, the clear, drained juice was poured into a pan and sugar was stirred in with a wooden spoon. The clear mixture boiled until the jelly hung in a drop of pale gold from the stirring spoon. At setting point, a teaspoon of the juice formed a crinkled skin on a cold white plate.

Clean , recycled jam jars were scalded and then warmed in a low oven,while their lids were boiled for ten minutes.

Here are some of the finished jars , waiting to be labelled, alongside hedgerow jam and bottled pears from another garden tree.

Below is the simple recipe I used, which came from a basic cookery book given to my mother, by her grandmother, way back in the 1930`s as Mum prepared to leave her village home to train as a nurse.

I remember eating this crab apple jelly as a child, and the enticing scent of the jelly-juice boiling in the pan took me back many years. The picking and preserving of fruit is a timeless task. Something that links us to our great grandmothers and those who went before.

Crab Apple Jelly

Wash and cut the crab apples into halves.
Cover the crabs with water in a heavy pan and boil slowly until soft and broken, then pass through a jelly bag ( muslin).
Allow one pint of juice to one pound of sugar and boil until the jelly will set.

( From Practical Cookery, compiled by Amy Atkinson and Grace Holroyd , price Two Shillings)

Friday, 17 September 2010

Abundance at the Forest Edge

Late morning, along quiet trackways leading to the heath, I walked uphill in the late summer sun. Clouds sometimes tempered the warmth, but the day was bright and the woodland edge was filled with a wild harvest of berries, fruit and ripening nuts.

This is a time when migrating birds pass through the Forest on their way to the sea, to Europe and to Africa. Before their long flight, the Forest invites them to stay for a while, to take their fill of the food that is ripening here. Our native birds and small mammals join the feast, their young ones growing and gaining strength before the harder times of winter yet to come.

Sweet chestnuts ripen on a laden tree.

The wilding apple trees are full of fruit. The offspring of domestic trees from cottage orchards, they grow small, hard apples of varying colours, from deep reds to bright, acidic greens. A beautiful red crab apple jelly can be made from the fruit of the tree below, although the birds, squirrels and cattle have first claim on a wild tree.

Drought meant that blackberries (brambles) have been less fruitful than they were last summer, but the deep red hawthorns are as plentiful as ever. Hawthorn trees and bushes make a winter larder for fruit eating birds.

A few bright Tormentil flowers still flower in the undergrowth.

In one gravel lane, I found that an old hawthorn, encased in tree ivy, had snapped a dry main branch under its load of leaves and branches. Ivy cascaded down to the ground and the leaves appeared to be dying. Autumn flying insects will miss the masses of yellow globed ivy flowers , not yet opened and dying on the broken tree.

The wounded branch, broken and splintered dry.

Late harebells in the undergrowth.

Another hawthorn tree, its berries red against a blue sky.

Three fruiting trees together. Acorns, green wilding apples and hawthorn cluster alongside the path.

The cattle have already found these tiny apples on the grass.

Scarlet hips from a dog rose that flowered in the early summer.

More brambles.......

.......and ash keys drying to brown before they fall in the winter winds.

Another wilding tree, with the deepest red apples, on the sunlit edge of the wood.

As I climbed the bracken covered hill, I found new fungi sprouting in leaf mould beside the path.

A puffball, maybe an earthball?

Beneath the bracken and bramble briars, I saw a flash of scarlet. My first sight of Fly Agaric toadstools this autumn. A cluster of large, beautifully spotted toadstools and a flashback to childhood, when these were the magic toadstools of the woods. They are poisonous to humans and are said to have hallucinogenic powers. Stories of witches flying on broomsticks may derive from these and similar fungi. When the witches ( who were more likely wise, older women with a knowledge of country herbal lore) partook of the fungi, maybe they dreamed that they were flying?

Something has had a nibble of this one.

Down beside the woods, the broad leafed trees still keep their summer greens, but the leaves look drier now and it will not be long before cooler nights, autumn winds and the first frosts. The days when leaf colours will change and the leaf fall will begin.

Last vestiges of summer, the bell heathers bloom amongst grass and bracken....

....while ling dries from purple to brown amid spikes of new gorse. There is still good grass in the clearings. The Forest ponies and cattle are feeding well as the summer ends.