There is a noiseless little railway running through the valley, and there is an ancient little town lying at the abbey-gates – a town, indeed, with no great din of vehicles, but with goodly brick houses, with a dozen ‘publics’, with tidy, whitewashed cottages, and with little girls…bobbing curtsies in the street. But even now, if one had wound one’s way into the valley by the railroad, it would be rather a surprise to find a small ornamental cathedral in a spot on the whole so natural and pastoral. How impressive then must the beautiful church have been in the days of its prosperity, when the pilgrim came down to it from the grassy hillside, and its bells made the stillness sensible.
Henry James on Much Wenlock Portraits and Places
A long shot taken back in early February. I was probably standing on the higher slopes of Townsend Meadow, further up the field from the gap in the hedge to the allotment and challenging my camera’s zoom facility to its limit. Here then are the elevated remains of Wenlock Priory’s erstwhile church along with next-door roof glimpses of the Prior’s House, now a private home called The Abbey.
You can also see a cluster of Corsican Pines. I’ve no idea who planted them or why, but there are three groves of them around the Priory so I’m assuming the Milnes Gaskells who once lived at The Abbey (and had Henry James to stay on several occasions and also had the ruins as their own personal garden feature) may have been responsible for their arrival. They are anyway magnificent trees.
I suppose it’s rather bizarre, but three Septembers ago I arranged a family gathering in the very buildings where my Derbyshire great, great grandfather once kept his horses, oats store and cheese press along with all the usual 19th century small farm paraphernalia. Of course by 2018 the said buildings had been transformed into very smart holiday accommodation which we were renting for a week’s holiday, and by then too any actual family connection with the place and the nearby farmhouse had long been severed; back in 1892 in fact, when the Fox family left Callow Farm after nearly 200 years there.
But then there are other kinds of connection, less tangible, but in some ways more visceral – the place, the landscape, the knowledge that past family members had lived and worked here, had been born and died here, their mortal comings and goings marked in the records and gravestones at St. Michael’s church down in the valley at Hathersage:
The header photo was taken from the barns early one morning, looking across the Derwent Valley to the high moors above Hathersage. Here’s a daylit view:
And here are the barns:
And Callow Farmhouse, now a private home quite separate from the barns, but once home to the Fox family c1700-1892:
You can read more of this story at an earlier post:
Once we Shropshire folk had a very scenic Great Western Railway line that ran along the banks of the River Severn, including passing along the wooded slopes of the Ironbridge Gorge, now a World Heritage site. Just north of Ironbridge there was a branch line to Much Wenlock and South Wales far beyond. Much of the Severn Valley line has gone now, and that also goes for our Much Wenlock branch that once served the limestone quarries and livestock farmers. Mostly all that remains are stretches of track bed that have been overhauled to create walking and cycling routes. But we do still have a working section – the Severn Valley Railway, which is run as a heritage attraction from Bridgnorth to Kidderminster in Worcester where you can also connect with the mainline system. As their strap line claims ‘it’s a great day out.’ And for someone who still remembers travelling in steam trains as a matter of course (visions of Crewe Station where family outings to North Wales began) I still have pangs of nostalgia whenever I’m around a steam locomotive stoking up.
I confess there are times when I think growing our own vegetables is more trouble than it’s worth. On the other hand, I’d be sorry not to have my two allotment plots, though I am thinking of sub-letting a portion of one of them come March. This is mostly because the beds on my newer polytunnel plot are now in a more useable condition after several seasons’ composting. The Wenlock Silurian soil is very challenging, and it’s only taken me a decade and a half to get it to a state where it’s possibly more friable than claggy. Endemic pests are also a problem in community gardens, and especially in situations where plot holders’ early enthusiasm gives way to garden neglect and finally abandonment.
Anyway this last season has had its high points, sweet corn being one of them. We ate the last cobs yesterday, out of a crop of three or four dozen. Doing one’s own growing also means being able to have vegetables that are otherwise only available in tins: e.g. borlotti beans. And then having the polytunnel means that once the tomato and cucumber harvest is over (and that’s been tremendous this year too) I can bring on assorted kales, herbs, lettuces, spinach, endives and mustards for salads over the winter months.
Other successes this year are the raspberries – summer and autumn, strawberries, peas, courgettes, runner and broad beans, beetroot, cauliflowers, carrots, potatoes, onions and pointy cabbages. There are leeks, parsnips, fat winter cabbage, sprouting broccoli, and hopefully butter beans still to come. The squashes were a bit of a failure: two undersized Chioggia efforts, though I did turn one of them into some very good spicy soup today.
As ever with gardening, as one gathers in and eats the produce, so one is ever plotting the next seasons’ sowing, planting and eating.
A few Septembers ago we had a family trip to Kalamata on the Peloponnese. I had not been to Greece before, and it was love at first sight – from the moment we left the airport. There had been a fierce summer that year with no rain and the earth looked parched. I don’t know what it was that spoke to me most – the rugged stony uplands, the everywhere-colonies of feathery phragmites reeds, the wild cyclamen, household clutter around the homesteads and olive groves, the olive groves themselves, the country lanes and then the views of the Taygetos Mountains across the Messinian Gulf. The only downside for us, though quite the opposite for the locals, we brought the rain on our heels, so there are stormy skies as well as china blue ones. It anyway seems like a dream now.
I have no idea why this red-legged partridge decided to visit the Farrell domain. I don’t believe I have ever seen a sign of one around Wenlock’s field margins, although it ought to be ideal territory. They apparently like open farm terrain and feed on seeds, roots and small invertebrates. Also when disturbed they prefer to run rather than fly.
Yet here was this one, having clearly flown, atop the old garden privies (now sheds) and showing off for all the world to see. It was there for ages too, giving me ample opportunity to snap away from the bedroom window. The light was perfect, a crisp March morning last year. I watched while it scanned the neighbourhood, and at one point went in for some loud hallooing partridge style. I wondered if it was advertising for a mate. In any event none appeared, not unless it was running-not-flying over in the field and I couldn’t see it. So the mystery was never solved and after a quarter of an hour the visitor departed, never to be seen since, which is a pity. A partridge on the privy would be a pleasing garden addition.
The red-legged partridge has French origins and was introduced to the British Isles in the 1700s as a new game bird for land-owner shooting types. It apparently has over 73,000 breeding sites in England, Wales and lowland Scotland, and is a much more colourful character than the UK’s native Grey Partridge.
It comes with added red tailed bee bum, and so the mystery is revealed…a globe artichoke flower, or rather an artichoke inflorescence since each part is an individual small flower. There were several valiant stabs at it, but Jude and Izzie were the first to guess correctly.
It is often on the field path to and from the allotment that the seeming ordinary catches my eye. Often too it’s the result of collaborating elements. Take this apple, one of a bucket of windfalls that a neighbour had tossed over the hedge into Townsend Meadow. Then came the blackbirds who, through the autumn, nibbled at the flesh until only this translucent skin remained. Then there was some frosty winter weather and a lowering late-day sun over the Edge. And so we have an apple lantern. And I just happened to be passing as it lit up…
The allotment plots are also fertile grounds for the extraordinary ordinary and finding them can provide protracted and absorbing diversions from weeding and digging. Who can guess what this is?
On the home front too, the multifarious parts of my unruly garden can be an endless source of distraction whatever the season, though autumn can yield some especially fine moments.
Lens-Artists: Ordinary This week I. J Khanewala asks us to explore the commonplace with fresh eyes. A focused look at the ordinary can suddenly transform into the extraordinary.
“For me, a stained glass window represents the transparent partition between my heart and the heart of the world. Stained glass is exhilarating, it needs gravity, passion. It has to live through the perceived light.” Marc Chagall
Today Becky’s lovely blue gallery reminded me of the photos I’d taken of Marc Chagall’s stained glass – this on a long-ago stay in Nice. The window is in the auditorium of the Musee National Marc Chagall, which has to be one of the finest little galleries in the world: the setting, the building and the art fusing in dreamy synergy that captures the humanity, joyousness, and all round good spirits of Marc Chagall. He was a man who created in all media. He saw his work “not the dream of one people but of all humanity”.
And then there is his use of colour. Picasso probably has the last word on that: “When Matisse dies, Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what colour really is.”
A male Common Blue butterfly (Polyommatus icarus ), spotted one summer’s evening on my way home from the allotment. And despite the name, these butterflies are not at all common in our corner of Shropshire. Not only that, if you do happen to see one they don’t usually stay to have their photo taken. A very lucky shot then. And even in this next more distant view, still a magical sight:
You can find out more about them on the Butterfly Conservation website HERE